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Research GELIFES About us



Main scientific challenges now come from the need to integrate the study of short- and long-term adaptive processes. Evolution on a long-time scale has shaped the short-term regulatory mechanisms that determine the potential and limitations for adaptive capacity, ultimately affecting the ecology of species, their interactions with each other and the environment. In turn, the nature of these mechanisms and the ecological interactions of organisms determine the potential direction, speed, and limitation for evolutionary change. Therefore, taking the long-term processes of evolution into account in the analyses of short-term adaptive processes and vice versa is critical for understanding Life. It is also critical for addressing major societal challenges. Knowledge of long-term evolutionary processes is important for understanding the diversity of stress responses, the prevalence and treatment of diseases, individual differences in life history strategies (including differences in health and ageing that are the scope of personalized medicine), as well as for efficient protection, restoration, and management of biodiversity. Knowledge of short-term mechanistic processes is important for understanding the nature, speed, possibilities, and constraints for evolution of response mechanisms like behavioural flexibility, phenotypic and developmental plasticity, or epigenetic inheritance, and thereby for predicting the adaptive capacity of organisms, including modern humans, in a time of rapid environmental change.

Integrating these approaches has the unique potential to provide a new foundation for the life sciences. Recent findings, such as adaptation by non-genetic inheritance and the role of early life events, significant evolution on much shorter time scales than previously thought, brain plasticity much greater than previously assumed, and cascading adaptive responses in species interaction networks-- they all request an integrative approach. After the genomics revolution, it is now time for a next scientific uprising in which the key adaptive processes from genes to organisms to populations to ecosystems are fully integrated across multiple time scales. This integrative approach obviously also requires multidisciplinary research, combining concepts and techniques from different fields within biology. This has been achieved by integrating the former Centre of Behavioural Neurosciences (CBN) with the former Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies (CEES), into the Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Science (GELIFES). GELIFES therefore combines ecological, evolutionary, behavioural, physiological, neurobiological, developmental theoretical and statistical modelling approaches, crossing traditional borders of research fields. Fundamental research is the driver for innovative applications, and together with education, the main function of universities. Our vision on GELIFES’ role in society is primarily to provide fundamental knowledge to (1) help to develop new solutions to mitigate societal problems, (2) satisfy and stimulate societal interest in basic biological processes. As reflected in the media, there is increasing interest among the public in fundamental questions varying from how our complex brain works to the amazing biodiversity created by evolution, core topics in our Institute. In addition, given the available expertise within GELIFES and its public funding, we have the responsibility to help more directly solve the current severe societal challenges that will have a huge potential impact on the next generations. The ongoing human population and consumption boom is accelerating the pace of climate change, strains the availability of key resources such as fresh water, food, and health care, increases social instability, and threatens biodiversity around the globe. Therefore, we also tailor part of our research to aid to mitigate these threats by more applied research.

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The mission of the Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Sciences (GELIFES) is to enhance the understanding of adaptive processes, including their causes and consequences and their maladaptive costs, across all levels of biological organization (from molecules and genes to individuals and ecosystems), to inform society of the institute’s findings and contribute with (tangible) solutions to urgent societal problems.

GELIFES' goals are as follows:

  1. To perform frontline research both by integrative multidisciplinary approaches to short- and long-term adaptive processes as well as in its separate foundational disciplines.
  2. To educate the new generation of life sciences researchers and educators in this integrative way of thinking.
  3. To inform the public at large of GELIFES research and its fields, and where possible join forces with non-academic partners and promote knowledge-based societal change.
  4. To contribute with solutions to global challenges by tailoring GELIFES fundamental and applied research to societal demands.
While retaining a strong basis in fundamental and long-term strategic science, the Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Science (GELIFES) aims at enhancing shorter-term impacts on society by strengthening its connections to national and international research agendas and funding mechanisms, student interests and their employability, and by increasing the dissemination of findings to the public at large and other stakeholders.

Highlights of GELIFES’ current research

Research within GELIFES addresses a range of core fundamental questions such as: Why do we age? How has life diversified throughout deep time? How does our brain work? Why do birds migrate? Why do people, but also many animal species, have very different personalities? Why do many animals show social behaviour? How (fast) can species adapt to environmental change? Why do most species reproduce sexually, and why are there usually two sexes? How, when, and to what extent does the genome during development interact with the environment to build up the phenotype and to what extent does this allow for plasticity? Why do we become ill and why are some of us more vulnerable to diseases than others? Why do we have a biological clock and why do we sleep? What is the role of microbes in our body and in the soil? How do species interact creating stable ecosystems?

Our Institute has built up a world-wide expertise regarding answering such questions, leading to ground-breaking answers. Specifically, we have a longstanding recognition in the following fields:

  • The integration of ecology with evolution (eco-evolutionary approach), where we stand out for our theoretical work, using mechanistic models for evolution to bridge theory with our experimental work on real organisms.
  • Together with our experimental research on both behavioural biology and neuroscience, we are well known for our studies on development and animal and human personality and social behaviour.
  • Studies on the ecology and conservation of both terrestrial and marine ecosystems in relation to global change, being especially recognized for in long-term studies on bird trophic and migratory biology and being a lead scientific player in research on the Wadden Sea.
  • The ecology, physiology and neurobiology of behaviour for which we are the largest research centre in the Netherlands, with connections to biomedical research through our translational studies on neurobiological mechanisms of brain disorders.
  • The study of biological rhythms and sleep, combining animal and human studies.

Due to our integrative research vision and the merger of the two former institutes we have created a unique combination of expertise and tools under one roof, including molecular, microbial, physiological, neurobiological, behavioural, theoretical and modelling approaches, as well as extensive expertise in ecology and evolution. For this we host excellent facilities for keeping a wide array of organisms both in lab conditions and in semi-natural environments (green houses, climate rooms, and extensive housing facilities for insects, fresh-water and marine organisms, birds, and small mammals). In addition, we operate stations at long-term ecological research sites both in the Netherlands and abroad and apply innovative digital technologies for real world behavioural phenotyping in a variety of species, including birds and humans. These facilities reflect our vision that for a real understanding of the biology of organisms we must validate our results, obtained for example in genetically modified organisms under artificial lab conditions or in wild organisms housed in an ecologically relevant setting. Especially for our theoretical and genomics work, we have a state-of-the-art computer facility.

Last modified:14 September 2022 2.50 p.m.