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Second major research award for York biologist

Posted on 25 November 2014

A University of York scientist has won a second major award for his pioneering research in the evolutionary biology of microbes.

Professor Mike Brockhurst, of the University’s Department of Biology, has won a Philip Leverhulme Prize to continue his study into the causes and consquences of rapid evolution in natural microbial communities.

Last month he won the Fleming Prize which is presented to early career scientists who have achieved an outstanding research record by the Society for General Microbiology.

Much of Professor Brockhurst’s research exploits 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.

He has studied how we can apply this knowledge to real-life situations and in particular to human infections. His research on chronic lung infections of cystic fibrosis (CF) patients has revealed that rapid evolution of the bacterial pathogen within the patients’ lungs results in very diverse and constantly changing bacterial populations. This complex and rapidly changing nature of the infections might help to explain why they are so hard to treat with antibiotics.

Building on this work, the Leverhulme prize funds will be used to perform a series of laboratory evolution experiments to understand how variation in the microbiome drives evolution of the predominant bacterial pathogen in CF infections, Pseudomonas aeruginosa. While CF lungs contain a rich diversity of microbes including fungi and bacteria we still know very little about how microbial community interactions affect the evolution of invading pathogens.

He said: “I am incredibly honoured to receive this prize in recognition of my research over the past 10 years. I’m grateful for the support of inspirational colleagues both at York and Liverpool, and to all of the talented collaborators, students and postdocs who have made doing the science such fun.

“It is clear now, not least because of the widespread evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, that microbial evolution is a pressing and important area of research. Because of their short generation times (tens of minutes) and their enormous population sizes (billions of individuals in a drop of fluid), microbes are capable of very rapid evolution. So fast, in fact, that we observe evolutionary change happening over a few days.

“We must, therefore, rethink our relationship with the trillions of microbes living in and on our bodies. Understanding what drives their rapid evolution and its outcomes is especially important in long-term infections, where evolutionary change in microbial pathogens profoundly affects patient health and the effectiveness of treatments.”

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.

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