Mike Brockhurst wins the 2015 Fleming Prize

30 March 2015


Mike Brockhurst, Professor of Evolutionary Biology and 50th Anniversary Chair at the University of York, has been awarded the Society’s 2015 Fleming Prize. Mike is an expert in the field of evolutionary biology; his research explores the real-time evolutionary dynamics of microbes using both lab experiments and studies of pathogens in human chronic infections.

His work shows that the bacterial populations infecting the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis are very diverse, which has important consequences for patient health and effective treatment. His prize lecture, Rapid microbial evolution: From the lab to the clinic and back again, will be held at 12.10 today.

When did you first become aware of science?

At school – more so than just science, at about 13 or 14 I decided I wanted to do biology. I had really good biology teachers who encouraged a broader outlook, lending us books from their own libraries. One of the teachers lent me some books on evolution: The Blind Watchmaker of course, but also some weird controversial ones. I read them and decided that the subject is what I wanted to do, although I didn’t really know how to go about doing it. At university it slowly dawned on me that there were people who did research for a living.

Was there a moment at university that really confirmed this for you?

It was a lecture series. In my second year there was a course on evolutionary biology that was completely captivating. Evolutionary biology got me thinking about why the natural world is the way it is, while lots of lecture series in my first year were about how biology works. As part of that course my future PhD supervisor Paul Rainey gave several lectures about experimental evolution and that seemed incredibly exciting. This was the late 90s, when the field was only eight or nine years old. Paul had just published his seminal Nature paper on the evolutionary diversity of Pseudomonas fluorescens – a system I’ve worked on ever since. I did my undergraduate project with Paul, when I met Angus Buckling, another important mentor for me. I was set then, I knew I wanted to do experimental evolution and I was fascinated by the idea that you could watch evolution in real time in microbial populations.

How would you describe your research?

I design experiments and ways to test ideas. I’m not a techniques biologist – there are lots of researchers who are and they’re incredibly impressive to me, but I’m not like that – I come up with ideas and try to test them. I’m pretty terrified of fieldwork and the chaos that is the natural world, I like to control things in the lab and precisely tease apart what’s going on. Increasingly, I’m dabbling in the ‘real world’ and looking at the evolution of pathogens in infections, but my tendencies are then always to want to design experiments to pick apart the processes going on in these populations.

How does the experimental evolutionary biology you were exposed to at university compare to the discipline now?

The vast difference between then and now is the ease and cost of genome sequencing. When I started my PhD, the team were working hard to characterise the few mutations that were causing a biofilm phenotype. It took literally years of work-hours to do that. Now, we can do the same work in weeks, using next-generation sequencing technology. That has vastly increased our ability to understand the mechanisms of evolution. That comes with its own challenges. We all have to be genome sequencers now and need to be able to interpret the data. It’s revolutionised the field – it’s incredible that we can identify mutations within months – but it’s interesting that despite that, there’s huge amount of laboratory-based work that still needs to be done to figure out how these mutations work. Genome sequencing speeds up the identification of mutations, but really that’s just the beginning.

There’s a shift to ‘Big Data’ in many areas of science – that’s great and is revealing patterns in the noise that we’d otherwise be unable to see, but the fundamental challenge remains that to understand nature we need to do experiments. The data gives us correlations: you still need to go into the lab to test causation.

What will you be talking about in your Prize Lecture?

I will talk about the importance of rapid evolution in microbial populations in applied problems like health. In particular, I’ve worked with a great group of scientists and clinicians to understand the evolution of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an important opportunistic pathogen of people with cystic fibrosis, who have a genetic mutation that leads to thickened mucus in the lungs leaving them prone to infection. We’re interested in the evolution of the bacteria in the lung once they’ve become established and how this affects a patient’s prognosis, their health day-to-day and how the infection responds to treatment. Our data suggest that evolution leads to very high levels of diversity within patients, with lots of different mutations coexisting, including those causing important changes like antibiotic resistance. Evolutionary studies are vital and can really feed into practical strategies to better diagnose and treat infections.

If you’ve already seen such a huge change in your field, what do you think the future holds for evolutionary biology?

The goal for people like me is to understand why bacteria evolve in infections and whether we can use that information to design new interventions. That will lead us into a world of ‘intelligent treatments’ in which we make interventions that reduce the likelihood that [bacteria will evolve resistance].  Some of these things might be socioeconomic, or behavioural – perhaps we need to encourage patients of clinicians to behave differently. Evolutionary biologists need to talk to clinicians, sociologists and microbiologists; you need a joined-up, multidisciplinary approach to solve complex problems.

What does winning this prize mean to you?

It’s a great honour, although slightly daunting; there are some very eminent scientists among the previous winners. These awards are awarded to individuals, but because my work is incredibly collaborative, there are a lot of other people behind this too. I think it’s really exciting that the Society are recognising the importance of the evolutionary approach in our understanding of microbiology – I’m hoping that’s something that continues to get stronger over time.

What one piece of advice do you have for someone early in their career?

Finish stuff. Get research completed, get it published – it’s really difficult to progress otherwise.

Image: Professor Mike Brockhurst.