Farewell (though not goodbye) to BRLSI’S Chief Scientist

Dr David Cunliffe-Jones, BRLSI Science Convenor 2005-10.
BRLSI’s lecture programme is divided into subject groups, each with a Convenor who organises the year’s list of events. For the past five years the Institution’s Science Convenor has been Dr David Cunliffe-Jones, and by any standards he’s done an outstanding job, not least in 2009 when he fielded a roll-call of the UK’s leading UK evolutionary biologists which formed the core of the BRLSI’s year-long Darwin and Beyond season.
Tonight, however, was David’s last lecture as Convenor (though we hope far from his last appearance at BRLSI), as he’s retiring to pursue a project on molecular interactions which he first conceived 40 years ago, at the start of his career as an industrial chemist. Tributes were paid by Darwin and Beyond Programme Manager Martin Sturge, and by BRLSI Chair of Trustees Prof Julian Vincent, with warm applause (repeatedly) from the audience of Science Group regulars who’ve enjoyed David’s programme over the years.

Prof Stuart Reynolds

BRLSI is very fortunate to have not just one but two eminent scientists, both from the University of Bath, taking up the reins as Science Co-Convenors: Prof John Davies of the Dept of Physics, and Prof Stuart Reynolds of the Dept of Biology and Biochemistry (and current President of the Royal Entomological Society). Both were in attendance, Prof Davies to give a preview of the Science Group’s 2011 programme, and Prof Reynolds to give the evening’s lecture, somewhat chillingly entitled The Dance of Death: Evolution and Disease.
Charles Darwin identified the basic principles of evolution, but didn’t know all the details of how it worked. Famously he was unaware of genes, but as Prof Reynolds told us, he also missed the biggest test of fitness for survival – resistance to disease. Like most scientists in the early 19th Century, Darwin was fairly uninformed about disease in general, and in particular the air- and water-borne germs and viruses that caused many of them, including mass killers such as cholera. And even when he did become aware of them, 20 years or so after the publication of the Origin of Species, Darwin still didn’t realise their relevance to evolution.

Prof John Davies: new BRLSI Science co-Convenor
As Prof Reynolds explained, disease is, in fact, where evolution happens most and quickest, as hosts (us) and parasites (germs/viruses) engage in a never-ending ‘antagonistic co-evolution’ cycle of infection, developed resistance and re-developed infection. Although this process happens, unseen, in the bloodstream, its effects are the same as the visible cycles of threat and adaptation that Darwin noted, with ‘selective sweeps’ increasing the incidence of evolved immunity in the population just as they might the incidence of a more visible survival characteristic.
As is often the case in BRLSI Science events, Prof Reynolds gave us a glimpse of the meticulous research that underpins broad conclusions, taking us into a world of RNAi and glycoproteins and relating them to a series of ‘Darwinian predictions’ that explained, for example, how immunisation (acquired immunity) breaks the evolutionary cycle, which then starts up again as new-born, non-immunised hosts enter the population. This visit back into the territory of last year’s Darwin programme provided a fitting farewell for the Convenor who played a large part in making it such an enormous success.
• The next BRLSI Science lecture is on Friday 21st January, when Prof Francis Duck of the Royal United Hospital, Bath and the University of Bath will speak on Seeing Beneath the Skin: The technology and use of medical imaging. Details of BRLSI’s Science Programme can be found here.