€5m for research into evolutionary drivers of antibiotic resistance and predator influence on ecosystems

Two European Research Council (ERC) Advanced grants of €2.5 million each have been awarded to academics at Oxford Biology. These grants recognise ground-breaking projects led by researchers with a track record of significant research achievements. 

pseudomonas colony

A colony of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a species of bacteria which is one of the leading causes of infections in hospitals, particularly good at resisting antibiotics.

One of the projects, led by Professor Craig MacLean, will investigate the ecological and evolutionary drivers of antibiotic resistance in patients. It will uncover the drivers of both emergence and loss of resistance during infection, as well as exploring how bacterial genomes evolve in response to antibiotic treatment.

Antibiotic resistance has emerged as a fundamental threat to human health and responding to this crisis is a global scientific challenge. The project will involve a novel combination of clinical sampling, experimental evolution, and genomic analyses, generating unprecedented insights into the drivers of resistance during infection. This work will combat a knowledge gap and optimise interventions for combatting resistance, ultimately benefitting patients. 

The other project, led by Professor Tim Coulson, will investigate the ecological and evolutionary consequences of changes in predation within an ecosystem, and the long-term consequences it can have on an environment. This will be explored across three different systems: Yellowstone National Park in the US, freshwater streams in Trinidad, and the oceanic islands surrounding Australia. 

Silvereye on a branch

A silvereye, a bird whose island populations are larger and with slower life histories than mainland populations, due to fewer predators.

Differing levels of predation pressure can cause striking patterns of ecological and evolutionary change such as rapid development of unique life histories and phenotypic traits, and macro-evolutionary patterns – such as the island rule, where island species tend to become smaller or larger than mainland relatives. It is well known already that trophic cascades can result from the removal of key species, such as predators in an ecosystem. 

While these dynamics are widespread, they are not universal. Research undertaken as part of this grant will consolidate evidence from different systems and timescales and inform understanding of predation regime change more widely. In turn, it is hoped that this information will give a better picture of what might happen if predators are removed or added to various ecosystems, helping to inform conservation or land management policies