Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology study the fundamental laws of evolution. They are keen to understand how new characteristics become established and how new species emerge. One of the major research subjects at the Institute is the analysis of genes that enable mice to adapt to their environment. In addition to this, they also examine how evolution brought forth sexuality, and what evolutionary advantages result from this. To this effect, the scientists combine field observations with lab and field experiments. Furthermore, they compile genealogical trees of related species with the help of genetic analyses. Computer models help them to formulate and test theoretical concepts of evolution as well.


August-Thienemann-Str. 2
24306 Plön
Phone: +49 4522 763-0
Fax: +49 4522 763-310

PhD opportunities

This institute has an International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS):
IMPRS for Evolutionary Biology

In addition, there is the possibility of individual doctoral research. Please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute.

Defence at almost any price
The efforts of bacteria in their defence against predators is so great that they can barely invest resources in offspring more
Evolution in the lab

Evolution in the lab

September 08, 2017
Experiments with bacteria show that genes can fuse together, leading to the production of novel proteins more
Genetically modified organisms for pest control could end up as contaminants in agricultural products throughout the globe more
Different recombination rates keep highly selfish genes in check
The hamlet fish can be both the father and mother of its offspring – a characteristic that is helping researchers to understand why genes often undergo recombination more readily in one sex. more
Extortionate strategies can be successful - if they are not applied too heavy-handedly more
Balancing selection is responsible for helping us fend off pathogens, but also for the occurrence of mutations in our genome that predispose us to hereditary diseases more
Strategies for dealing with the cuckoo mafia
Host birds only tolerate parasitic eggs in their nests when they fear retaliation more
Proportion of cancer stem cells can increase over the course of cancer treatment more
Raw material for new genes
Genetic analysis in mice shows that new genes can evolve from non-functional DNA regions more
Voters prefer to be represented by extortioners
A climate game and a game theory model show that people prefer representatives who adopt an extortionate strategy in negotiations more
Mutual sabotage in parasites

Mutual sabotage in parasites

February 10, 2016
When parasites in different developmental stages infect the same host, conflicts of interest develop between the parasites more
The life story of stem cells

The life story of stem cells

November 09, 2015
A model analyses the development of stem cell numbers in the human body more
Genes for speciation

Genes for speciation

December 09, 2014
Regions in the genome cause infertility in some hybrids of house mouse subspecies more
From single cells to multicellular life
Max Planck researchers capture the emergence of multicellular life in real-time experiments more
Smiling builds trust

Smiling builds trust

November 06, 2014
Smiles perceived as genuine promote cooperation more

Wherever people live, there are mice. It would be difficult to find another animal that has adapted to the habitats created by humans as well as the house mouse has. It thus seemed obvious to Diethard Tautz at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön that the species would make an ideal model system for investigating how evolution works.

Sunshine, water, blue skies and a castle in the background – many people associate the lakes in and around Plön, in northern Germany, with carefree vacation days. The scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology have certainly not lost sight of the beauty of the landscape, but the main focus of their interest is one of the lakes’ inhabitants and its genes. The three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) feels very much at home along the shores of Great Plön Lake. And right here, amid the natural nesting grounds of these small fish, is where the Institute’s open water research labs are located.

Sculpin Liaisons

1/2014 Biology & Medicine
The sculpins of Arne Nolte, head of a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, near Kiel, are no beauties; yet these unprepossessing fish, first discovered in the Lower Rhine in the 1990s, hold a special fascination
The debate surrounding the dangers posed by genetically modified organisms is becoming emotional and increasingly removed from the scientific context – particularly when it comes to the use of these organisms in agriculture. The radical rejection is obstructing its development and leading to problems that its opponents had actually hoped to prevent.
Rethinking biodiversity research.
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Migration genetics – how do migratory birds find their way?

2017 Liedvogel, Miriam
Behavioural Biology Evolutionary Biology Genetics
One characteristic of bird migration is its variability, both within and among species. Particularly fascinating are young birds on their first migratory journey covering thousands of kilometers that often span continents. These tiny birds travel to wintering areas they have never been before - without the guidance of their parents, but with amazing accuracy. How do they do this? From selection experiments we know that variation in migratory behaviour is largely due to genetic differences, but the number and identity of genes involved in controlling migratory traits remains elusive. more

Models of genome evolution and the origin of species

2016 Dutheil, Julien Y.
Developmental Biology Evolutionary Biology Genetics
Modeling the evolution of full genomes in populations is a methodological challenge because of the large number of recombination and mutation events to be accounted for. For that purpose, new models have been developed that introduced simplifications to the standard coalescent theory. When applied to closely related species, these models have shed new light on the speciation process that led to our own species, some 6 Million years ago. In order to be applied to a broader range of organisms, current models need to integrate complex demographic scenarios with heterogenous genomic landscapes. more

Computing phylogenies from genomes

2015 Haubold, Bernhard
Evolutionary Biology Genetics
Computing phylogenies is one of the most popular applications in bioinformatics. For this purpose evolutionary distances are estimated between nucleotide or amino acid sequences and the phylogeny is reconstructed from these distances. However, estimating distances between long sequences is time consuming. Hence an ultrafast method for calculating distances between genomes has been developed. more

Hybridization as an evolutionary motor

2014 Nolte, Arne W.
Evolutionary Biology Genetics

Hybrids have fascinated biologist for a long time. The possible role that such individuals of mixed origin may play for evolutionary processes is increasingly considered. Much like crosses that are employed by animal and plant breeders to generate new varieties, natural hybrids can harbor novelty that can convey critical fitness advantages in evolutionary processes. By integrating crossing experiments with screens for the emergence of novel traits, scientists at the institute analyze if novel traits in hybrids play a role as adaptations to new environments.


When rapid evolution matters

2013 Becks, Lutz
Evolutionary Biology
Over the last years, evidence has accumulated that evolution can take place much more rapid than previously thought, occurring within a few generations. This finding is not only important for evolutionary biology, but also for ecology because the recognition that evolutionary change can act on ecological timescales makes the two processes ultimately entangled. Scientists at the MPI for Evolutionary Biology combine laboratory studies, analysis of mathematical models and genomic approaches to study the consequences of the interaction of ecological and evolutionary change on one time scale. more

How and why did a simple yeast evolve a complex life cycle?

2012 Greig, Duncan
Evolutionary Biology
The yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae has long been domesticated by humans. It is an ideal organism for evolution experiments. It can grow rapidly to large population sizes, it has an interesting life cycle which includes both sexual and asexual stages, and it is extremely well understood as a laboratory model organism. But very little is known about its natural life. By studying S. paradoxus, a wild relative of S. cerevisiae, both in its natural environment and in the laboratory, we can understand more about how and why features of the life cycle such as sporulation, sex, and signalling evolved. more

Host - microbiota coevolution in the intestine

2011 Baines, John F.
Evolutionary Biology Medicine Microbiology
Research in a multitude of biomedical disciplines in the last decade has highlighted the importance of the bacterial communities inhabiting our intestinal tract. This is in part due to the rapidly growing field of metagenomics, which enables genetic material to be studied directly from the environment. Although they are most widely known for their role in transfusion medicine and immunology, many blood group antigens are expressed in the intestine and influence resident bacteria. Our current work in this field focuses on the blood-group related glycosyltransferase B4galnt2. more

Optimization of the immune system by natural and sexual selection

2010 Lenz, Tobias; Kalbe, Martin
Evolutionary Biology
One of the greatest mysteries in evolutionary biology to date is the widespread occurrence of sexual reproduction. A key role in its evolution and maintenance is assumed for the dynamic co-evolutionary cycles of parasites and their hosts. Using the three-spined stickleback as a model organism in laboratory and field experiments, the importance of parasite-mediated natural but also sexual selection on reproductive success and thus on Darwinian fitness can be investigated. This in turn will help to better understand the widespread evolution of sexual reproduction. more

Searching for the basis of evolutionary adaptation

2009 Tautz, Diethard
Evolutionary Biology Genetics
Systematic studies to detect the molecular basis of evolutionary adaptations have only recently become possible. Scientists at the MPI for Evolutionary Biology focus on natural populations of the house mouse (Mus musculus). This involves genome based searches for signatures of recent adaptations. The first results indicate that such signatures occur much more often than it was considered possible so far. This opens up the option to devise experiments that will eventually allow to study the evolution of mouse populations in real time. more

The fastest path of evolution

2008 Traulsen, Arne
Evolutionary Biology Mathematics
During the evolution of a population, advantageous mutations are accumulated. This enhances the fitness of the population until all advantageous mutations are fixed. Under which circumstances does this process proceed fastest? A mathematical calculation shows that an exponential increase of fitness is optimal for small mutation rates. For high mutation rates, the process is faster if the fitness increases only in the last step. more

Diversity and sustainable management of Amazonian floodplain forests

2007 Schöngart, Jochen; Wittmann, Florian; Junk, Wolfgang J.
Amazonian floodplain forests are endangered due to their easy accessibility, nutrient-rich soils and richness in natural resources. Information on diversity, dynamics and tree growth in relation to environmental factors is the basis for the development of sustainable management concepts to guarantee their multiple ecological functions and at the same time the supply of natural resources for the local populations. more

Stable isotopes: new tool for the study of aquatic food webs

2006 Harrod, Chris; Lampert, Winfried
Chemistry Ecology
Stable isotopes, in particular of nitrogen and carbon, are a new tool to study the structure of food webs in aquatic ecosystems. These isotopes show characteristic enrichment when organic material is passed from one step in the food chain to the next. Moreover, the isotopic composition of organisms provides information on the origin of their resources. Scientists in the Department of Physiological Ecology of the Max Planck Institute for Limnology used this method to show how carbon from methane produced in lake sediments is transferred through bacteria and midge larvae to spiders outside of the water. In another project, they were able to demonstrate that different morphotypes of the same fish species specialize on different habitat and food resources in a lake. more
While there is ample experimental evidence for a role of species diversity in ecosystem performance, the functional significance of genetic diversity is less clear. In fact, many aquatic plant communities are highly productive although they consist of only a few or a single dominant species. In order to shed light on this apparent contradiction, scientists at the MPI of Limnology manipulated the genotypic diversity in the field in the seagrass species Zostera marina. The experiment took place in the Baltic Sea in 2003. During that year, a heat wave caused surface water temperatures to rise above 25°C, leading to widespread heat stress related mortality among shallow water animals and plants. Such conditions may serve as a model for predicted increases in climatic extremes. After the heat wave, genotypically diverse seagrass areas recovered faster, had more shoots and biomass and harboured more associated invertebrates at the end of the experimental period. Positive effects of genotypic diversity were due to true biodiversity effects (complementarity) and not due to the dominance of particularly resistant genotypes. These results provide experimental evidence that not only species diversity but also genetic diversity should be preserved. Genotypic diversity had a similar function as species diversity. This way, the level of genetic diversity can be incorporated into existing ecological theory on biodiversity at the level of species. more

Reputation both pays off and solves social dilemmas

2004 Milinski, Manfred
Behavioural Biology Evolutionary Biology Social and Behavioural Sciences
Many problems of the human society, such as overexploiting fish stock or the difficulty of sustaining the global climate, are problems of achieving cooperation. When individuals, groups or states are free to overuse a public good they usually overuse it. Thus, public goods are at risk to collapse, which happens to health insurance systems, fish stock and probably the global climate. This problem that is known as the "tragedy of the commons" [1], has been studied intensively by social- and political scientists and economists since decades and recently by evolutionary biologists. Except for allowing for punishing defectors [2], no scenario that facilitates a cooperative solution of the tragedy of the commons has been found yet. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Limnology could show that an unexpectedly efficient solution of the problem can be achieved when personal reputation, which is important for other social interactions, is at stake in the public goods situation. When this interaction is allowed for, the public good is not only sustained but also provides all participants with a high payoff [3]. more
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