Welcoming lecture by a visiting developmental and evolutionary biologist

Professor Scott F. Gilbert, who is joining the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Helsinki through the FiDiPro programme, held his official opening lecture to a full house on 11 April.

Welcoming lecture by a visiting developmental and evolutionary biologist

Professor Gilbert, from Swarthmore College in the United States, is one of the leading experts in issues related to bioethics and to the mechanisms by which animals change their anatomies during evolution.

To students of development and evolutionary biology, he is known as the author of several key textbooks in the discipline, including Developmental Biology, Ecological Developmental Biology, and Bioethics and the New Embryology. He is a popular lecturer who has talked about stem cell research at meetings in the Vatican and at Planned Parenthood.

According to Academy Professor Jukka Jernvall, the chair of the event, Gilbert was talking about evolutionary developmental biology even before the whole research field had been invented.

– At the University of Helsinki, he will teach, lecture and lead his own research group studying the development and evolution of tortoises. Do not hesitate to approach him!

Evolution favours partnerships

The key message of Gilbert’s lecture was that instead of favouring strong individuals, nature favours working partnerships. We like to think we are individuals but in reality there is a vast network of microbes working for us.

– You can even kill a host by destroying the symbiont. We need bacteria probably more than they need us. Even now it is the Team Scott Gilbert speaking here.

Traditionally, developmental biologists have only studied organisms in laboratory conditions. This overlooks the fact that organisms do not develop independently since symbionts are often necessary for normal development. According to Gilbert, this perspective should be more emphasized in the research of evolutionary development biology.

Gilbert uses many delicious examples to describe how modest symbionts support their hosts. The eggs of the yellow-spotted salamander do not develop without the cooperation of an alga that oxygenates them. The Large Blue butterfly is fed by ants that its caterpillars also eat. A land-dwelling frog species would not survive if it were not for the pools provided by deep elephant tracks.

The Finland Distinguished Professor Programme is a programme jointly financed by the Academy of Finland and Tekes, which provides an opportunity to invite the best foreign or expat Finnish researchers to Finland for a fixed period.

The lecture was part of the Viikki Campus Monday seminar series » »

FiDiPro – the Finland Distinguished Professor Programme » »

Institute of Biotechnology » »

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Text: Kirsikka Mattila
Photo: Scott Gilbert

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