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Natural Systems group expands research into ecosystem evolution

The newly-formed Science and Engineering of Natural Systems Group (SENSe) at the University of Southampton has appointed Dr Alex Penn to expand its research at the life sciences interface.

SENSe which is part of the University’s School of Electronics & Computer Science (ECS) aims to further understanding of biological and other natural systems and undertake research into the development and application of novel computational tools and techniques that are inspired by these systems.

Dr Penn, who did her PhD at the University of Sussex on the topic of artificial ecosystem selection, when she showed that the properties of whole ecosystems can be shaped by artificial selection procedures, is continuing her work on the ecosystem-level selection process at ECS with both models and experiments.

‘The question of how selection can act both on and within relatively loose collectives of species which are not yet integrated biological individuals bears relation to some of the most interesting questions in evolutionary biology today,’ she said.

Dr Penn’s research focus is an exciting new area which raises questions about possible novel evolutionary dynamics and which could potentially shed light on how new levels of biological organisation have formed over time. It also has potential practical uses, with the possibility of evolving bespoke ecosystems for waste treatment, bio-remediation and agricultural use, without the need for a reductionistic understanding of the complex underlying dynamics.

For example, a technique based on evolutionary theory which Dr Penn developed for improving the growth of lentils in degraded soils in Spain is now being applied to evolving microbial communities to biodegrade hydrocarbon compounds.

At ECS, she is working closely with Dr Richard Watson, a senior lecturer at SENSe whose main research interest is also evolutionary modelling. One of her key motivations is the great need at present to develop an understanding of how real ecosystems “in the wild” might be evolving in response to new external pressures such as climatic change.

Dr Penn commented: ‘I joined because ECS wanted someone who could do real experiments and bring more biology to the group, and I wanted to be part of an exciting interdisciplinary environment open to new ideas. Richard and I hope to explore how evolution works at multiple biological scales and how we can apply this knowledge to new practical challenges in complex evolving systems.’

Helene Murphy | alfa
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