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Professor Mike Brockhurst wins top award

Posted on 30 October 2014

Professor Brockhurst, who has carried out ground breaking research in the evolutionary biology of microbes, has won a major award from the Society for General Microbiology.

The Fleming Prize, which is presented to early career scientists who have achieved an outstanding research record within 12 years from the award of their PhD, is named for Alexander Fleming who was the first President of the Society for General Microbiology.  (1945-1947) and received a Nobel Prize for his discovery of penicillin. The award has been won by many eminent microbiologists including the current President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse FRS. 

Much of Mike's research has used the fast rates of evolution seen in microbes to observe "evolution in action" and to test evolutionary theories in the laboratory. He is particularly interested in how species evolve in response to interactions with other species. This process - called co-evolution - is thought to be important in the origins of biodiversity and in shaping the adaptations of hosts and their infectious diseases.

His work provided the first experimental evidence for the Red Queen hypothesis almost 40 years after its original publication. According to the hypothesis, co-evolution is like running on a treadmill: species must constantly evolve just to maintain their fitness against their evolving enemies. Professor Brockhurst's experiments showed that viruses adapting to an evolving host had to evolve twice as fast and became much more diverse than viruses adapting against a fixed non-evolving host.

He has gone on to study how we can apply this knowledge of microbial evolution in real-life situations and in particular in human infections. His research into Pseudomonas aeruginosa infecting the lungs of Cystic Fibrosis patients has revealed that due to rapid evolution of the bacterium within the patient, these infections are very genetically diverse and constantly changing. The complex and rapidly changing nature of these bacterial populations might help to explain why such infections are so hard to treat with antibiotics.

Mike said: "It is a very great honour to be awarded the Fleming Prize - its prestigious history and the calibre of the past winners certainly set a very high standard to live up to! As an evolutionary biologist I also see this award as recognition of the exciting interdisciplinarity of microbiology research today. I wish to thank all of the exceptional scientists with whom I have collaborated over the past decade, most especially the students and postdocs who have made the doing of the science such a pleasure."

Professor Brockhurst was awarded his PhD in 2004 and was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Liverpool in 2006. Within five years he was promoted to Reader and then in 2012 was appointed Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of York. His position in York is one of the University’s highly prized 50th Anniversary Chairs.

As recipient of the Fleming Prize Lecture, he will receive £1,000 and give a lecture at the SGM 2015 Spring Conference in Birmingham, about his research.

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