The evolutionary genetics of life and death in humans

In this project, we take an evolutionary approach to variation in human reproductive success and lifespan, and try to understand how these are being shaped by genes and the environment. we do this by combining genealogical data with a range of other types of datasets. This can provide us with insights into how important life-history traits, like age at first reproduction, family size and lifespan, as well as a range of socio-economic variables, (co)vary among individuals, villages and regions, and how they have changed over time. By subsequently combining these data with ideas from population and quantitative genetics and life-history theory, we can make a first step towards elucidating the role of genes in shaping life and death, in the past and in the present.

Individual-level causes and population-level consequences of variation in fitness

Switzerland has only a very small number of wild and unmanipulated bird and mammal populations where individuals are marked individually and individual life-histories are being recorded. One of the few of such studies is that of a wild snow vole population (Chionomys nivalis), located in the Swiss Alps. This study population was established in 2006 by Dr Peter Wandeler.

Given its in many ways extreme environment, this population provides an excellent system to link life-history theory, quantitative genetics and population ecology to study the effects of environmental variation and climate change on the evolutionary dynamics of isolated populations. Furthermore, their relatively close relatedness to house mouse and rat ensures the availability of a range of genetic and genomic tools.

Fitness meets fitness

Evolutionary biologists are usually the first to emphasize that evolutionary fitness has little in common with the meaning that is commonly attached to fitness by the general public, that is physical fitness. Whereas biologists emphasize the role of performance in shaping evolutionary fitness in non-human animal populations, sports scientists aim at improving performance, i.e. physical fitness, of elite athletes in particular. However, both fields have more in common than generally believed.

To show these parallels, I use concepts and methods from evolutionary biology, physiology and psychology to study the proximate and ultimate causes of variation in physical fitness, as well as in attractiveness, which is one aspect of evolutionary fitness. By combining physiological, morphometric and genetic data, I try to infer the past and present selective pressures acting on physical fitness in humans.