Two highly competitive ERC Advanced Grants in the Faculty of Science

Professor Roger Butlin (Department of Animal and Plant Sciences) and Professor Dan Tovey (Department of Physics and Astronomy) received a prestigious ERC Advanced Grant.

Professor Roger Butlin (Department of Animal and Plant Sciences) awarded a prestigious ERC Advanced Grant

Roger Butlin

The project will provide major new insights into the speciation process, particularly revealing the requirements for progress towards complete reproductive isolation.

Professor Roger Butlin

Professor Butlin's research is concerned primarily with the origin of species, especially the evolutionary genetics of reproductive isolation. He has used insect acoustic and chemical signals as model systems to investigate the controversial process of reinforcement, particularly in parapatry, and questions such as the inheritance of signal characters and the form of female preferences. Professor Butlin is currently working on local adaptation and speciation in winkles (Littorina), in close collaboration with colleagues in Sweden, and host races of the pea aphid (Acrythosiphon) and also collaborates in related projects with Drosophila subobscura and D. montana. Other areas of research include:

  • the evolution of asexual reproduction
  • the evolution at range margins and its implications for conservation genetics
  • genetic basis of virulence in the parasistic plant Striga

What is the project about?

"In this project, I will focus on the accumulation of barriers to gene exchange and the processes underlying increasing reproductive isolation. I will use the power of natural contact zones, combined with novel manipulative experiments, to separate the processes that underlie patterns of differentiation and introgression. The Littorina saxatilis (rough periwinkle - a coastal snail) model system allows me to do this with both local replication and a contrast between distinct spatial contexts on a larger geographic scale. I will use modelling to determine how processes interact and to investigate the conditions most likely to promote coupling and reinforcement. Overall, the project will provide major new insights into the speciation process, particularly revealing the requirements for progress towards complete reproductive isolation."

What is Speciation?

It's a central process in evolution that involves the origin of barriers to gene flow between populations. Species are typically isolated by several barriers and assembly of multiple barriers separating the same populations seems to be critical to the evolution of strong reproductive isolation. Barriers resulting from direct selection can become coincident through a process of coupling while reinforcement can add barrier traits that are not under direct selection. In the presence of gene flow, these processes are opposed by recombination. While recent research using the latest sequencing technologies has provided much increased knowledge of patterns of differentiation and the genetic basis of local adaptation, it has so far added little to understanding of the coupling and reinforcement processes.

Professor Butlin's professional activities include:

  • President, European Society for Evolutionary Biology, 2013-2015
  • Darwin-Wallace Medal, 2015, awarded by the Linnean Society of London
  • Associate Editor, American Naturalist, from 2015
  • Editor in Chief, Heredity, 2009-2012

Professor Dan Tovey (Department of Physics and Astronomy) receives also a highly competitive ERC Advanced Grant

Dan Tovey

This project will address directly the two most important unanswered questions in particle physics: the Standard Model (SM) hierarchy problem and the nature of dark matter (DM).

Professor Dan Tovey

Professor Tovey's research is focused on searching for new elementary particles created in collisions at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. His main interest is the search for production of new particles predicted by supersymmetry (SUSY) theory. SUSY could answer key questions about the famous Higgs boson, discovered at the LHC in 2012, and also explain the origin and nature of the mysterious 'dark matter' observed indirectly to exist throughout the universe by astronomers. In order to answer both these questions SUSY predicts the existence of new particles which could be observed at the LHC. Dan and his team work on the ATLAS experiment, one of the two largest experiments at the LHC, and over the next four years they will sift through the latest data from ATLAS to find first evidence for these particles. A discovery would revolutionise physics and our understanding of the universe on both the largest and smallest scales. In addition to conducting this search, in 2016 and 2017 Dan will also be overseeing and guiding the entire scientific programme of the experiment as ATLAS Physics Coordinator, elected by the 175 institutes from 38 countries comprising the ATLAS Collaboration.

What is the project about?

"This project will address directly the two most important unanswered questions in particle physics: the Standard Model (SM) hierarchy problem and the nature of dark matter (DM). The SM was recently completed with the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2012. We know, however, that the SM cannot be the end of the story for fundamental physics, because it suffers from two major flaws: a lack of stability for the mass of the Higgs boson (the hierarchy problem), and a lack of a candidate for the invisible DM particles known to make up most of the matter in the universe. I will address both of these key problems of modern physics by searching at the LHC for new beyond the SM (BSM) partner states for the SM top quark decaying to new DM particles. The greatly increased quantities of data and world-record collision energies generated by the LHC in the next three years will provide an unprecedented opportunity to find such top partners. Confirmation of their existence would solve the hierarchy problem by providing a mechanism for stabilising the mass of the Higgs boson, while first observation of DM at the LHC would revolutionise our understanding of cosmology and provide a key pointer to the physics of the very early universe. Many leading BSM physics models predict the existence of both top partners and DM, and so this interdisciplinary project provides a unique opportunity to take the next major step forward in developing a unified theory of nature. I will focus on top partners which decay to a top quark and a DM particle, with the former decaying purely to jets and the latter escaping the detector unseen. I will use novel kinematic techniques developed by me to identify and characterise this signal in LHC data, and also accurately measure for the first time the dominant SM background process of associated production of top quarks and a Z boson, which is of great theoretical interest in its own right."