(Interdisciplinary Cluster on Evolutionary Biology)

In The Picture


K.U.Leuven Darwin calendar 2009
Affiche Wetenschap van evolutie 2009

Contact person

Filip Volckaert
Laboratory of Animal Diversity and Systematics
Charles Deberiotstraat 32
B-3000 Leuven, Belgium
Phone: +32(0)16323966
Fax: +32(0)16324575
Website :


Faculty of Science

  • Laboratory of Entomology, Prof. J. Billen
  • Laboratory of Aquatic Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Prof. L. De Meester, L. Brendonck, F. Ollevier and R. Stoks
  • Laboratory of Animal Diversity and Systematics, Prof. F. Volckaert, J. Snoeks and W. Van Neer
  • Laboratory of Plant Ecology, Prof. O. Honnay
  • Laboratory of Ecology - KULAK, Prof. E. Decaestecker and K. Muylaert
  • Laboratory of Plant Systematics, Prof. E. Smets and dr. S. Huysmans
  • Animal Physiology and Neurobiology, Prof. J. Vandenbroeck, R. Huybrechts, V. Darras and L. Arckens
  • Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology, Prof. P. Van Dijck
  • Laboratory of Molecular Plant Physiology, Prof. W. Van den Ende and A. Van Laere
  • Center of Functional Biology, Prof. J. Winderickx
  • Teacher Training in Biology, Prof. M. Crauwels
  • Biogeology Research Group, Prof. R. Speijer, E. Steurbaut, R. Swennen and N. Vandenberghe

Faculty of Engineering

Faculty of Bioscience Engineering

  • Department of Biosystems
    • Division of crop biotechnics Prof. R. Swennen, Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement and Prof. W. Keulemans, Laboratory for Fruit Breeding and –biotechnology
    • Division of livestock-nutrition-quality, Prof. N. Buys
    • Division of gene technology, Prof. B. Goddeeris
  • Department of Land Management and Economics - Division Forest, Nature and Landscape Research, Prof. M. Hermy
  • Department Earth and Environmental Sciences, Prof. B. Muys,
  • Department of Microbial and Molecular Systems (M²S) - Centre of Microbial and Plant Genetics, Prof. B. Cammue and J. Michiels

Faculty of Medicine

  • Laboratory of Developmental Genetics, Prof. P. Callaerts
  • Laboratory of Forensic Genetics and Molecular Archaeology, Prof. R. Decorte
  • Clinical and Epidemiological Virology, Prof. A. Vandamme and M. Van Ranst

Background and goal

Evolution, the scientific heritage of great scientists such as Darwin, Mendel, Dobzhansky and Mayr, has become a central paradigm of life sciences. A narrow definition of evolution is the change in the inherited traits of a population from one generation to the next. A broader definition is the science of the origin and development of (groups of) organisms. Evolutionary insights have revolutionized our perspective on life and the changes which have accrued since the origin of life. What has become even more apparent over the past few decades is that the means are now available to test many of the hypotheses formulated earlier on. A common origin of life has been proposed as a reasonable assumption for some time, but it was only through breakthroughs in molecular genomics that the link between bacteria and eukaryotes became apparent. At the same time it has become possible to link changes in shape throughout the development of an organism to changes in genomic transcription. Hence the discipline of traditional morphology has been enriched with functional explanations and a growing number of structuring principles and laws. For example, we have an improved understanding of how an eternal "arms race" between hosts and pathogens has shaped their relationship. The results can be applied in smart medical applications, sometimes not even requiring anymore pharmaceutical intervention. The speed and manner at which man selects plants and animals for breeding has been revolutionized, because now he understands which principles and components of the genome rule changes. Over a relatively short time biology has transformed from a data poor to a data rich discipline. It is transforming evolutionary biology and even general biology from a descriptive discipline to a science gradually accumulating general laws and principles. Consequently, the need for multidisciplinary collaboration between biologists, molecular chemists and bioinformaticians has become unavoidable.

Strategic mission

The main aim of iCEB is to create a common platform for evolutionary research at the KULeuven, such that opportunities for novel research questions and methodologies are created. iCEB stimulates interaction between the various subdisciplines of evolution and with related clusters in the field of computational biology, artificial life and macromolecular interactions. To realize this the integration of a combination of research based activities through field observation, experimentation, modelling and theory, and supported by methodologies in molecular biology, genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics and engineering are pursued.

We aim at:

  • creating an environment of scientific excellence
  • the integration of scientific expertise from high-throughput observation, experimentation and modeling (by working in a multi-disciplinary environment of evolution, biodiversity, functional biology, computational biology, genomics and technology)
  • the creation of visibility (by pooling resources and organizing high profile events) and
  • academic excellence at the service of the community (in the context of human health, environmental sustainability and expertise).

Research lines

iCEB has identified six research lines (RL) of evolutionary research:

RL1 Host-pathogen interactions: a range of pathogens (viruses, microbes and parasites) infect microbial and multicellular organisms. In some cases the distinction between parasitic and symbiotic behaviour is very subtle. The host develops various strategies to avoid or reduce the impact of infection, while the pathogen systematically manipulates the biological features of its host to maximize its own survival. Such “arms race” has shaped through time the intimate relationship between host and parasite. Molecular screening of the phylogenies of host and pathongen, complemented with field observations, experimentation and modeling have led to an evolutionary interpretation of host - pathogen interactions. Several research teams in Leuven have acquired expertise (eg HIV – hominids; Candida albicans and vertebrates; nodulating bacteria and plants), which they will share with each other to develop as well more general as more specific approaches. PI: Patrick Van Dijck

RL2 Comparative molecular evolution: The development from fertilised gamete or spore to organism follows a well determined path of chemical and cellular interactions. Evolution and development (evo devo) is the discipline to understand the communality in development patterns between organisms as diverse as jellyfish and man. But in addition to development, the genomes of the most diverse organisms have much more in common. Hence the detailed genomic knowledge which has been accumulating in model organisms (such as Arabidopsis, the nematode C. elegans, fruitfly and mouse) can be translated to less well studied organisms, such as pest organisms (e.g., migratory locusts and cyst forming nematodes). The aim is to share and develop insights in comparative evolution and genomics between a wide range of organisms. PI: Patrick Callaerts

RL3 Biodiversity - the tree of life: the tree of life provides a logical framework to organise all life on earth. From DNA and protein code complemented with phenotypic information the common features between Archaea, Eubacteria and eukaryotes are becoming apparent. While the shallow routing between taxa has made considerable progress, the deep routing requires special attention. In addition, the horizontal transfer of genetic material has challenged the traditional concepts of genetics. Progress depends strongly on the development of algorithms, especially now that huge data bases have become available. At the same time these developments have become a discipline on itself in computational biology. The aim is twofold: (1) to organise the various research partners involved in the phylogenetic analysis of viral, microbial and multicellular taxa and (2) to support phylogenomics for functional and systems biologists. PI: Erik Smets and Suzy Huysmans.

RL4 Biodiversity - adaptation and selection: Evolution reflects a continuous process of change in response to the environmental conditions and based on the diversity of genomes. Organisms adapt continuously to changes in temperature, moisture and ionic composition. These changes happen gradually, but sometimes this may happen very fast, for example during changes from ice covered to ice free habitats in the Pleistocene (less than 800 kyr ago). Under the (in)direct influence of man such as the breeding of plants and cattle, the development of resistance for pharmaceutical products (e.g. antibiotics and antimalaria medicine) or the adaptation to new environmental chemicals (e.g. heavy metals and organics) very fast adaptations have been observed. The aim of the cluster is to share scientific insights across disciplines between the numerous teams studying selection and adaptation. In a next step new computational and experimental tools will be developed and multidisciplinary projects set up. PI: Wannes Keulemans and Nadine Buys.

RL5 Behaviour and evolution: Man is surely the most intelligent species of all animals, but many more organisms engage in seemingly futile contests for social status and adapt their environment. Ants organise complex social communities, plants respond to grazing by herbivores and bacteria show cooperative behaviour through chemical communication. Charles Darwin's idea that behaviour is the product of evolution and natural selection has gained solid contours. Evolution offers a much broader functional context in which both rational and non-rational behaviour can be placed in an explanatory framework. The evolutionary theory of behaviour shares features between disciplines such as epidemiology, economy, culture, psychology and sociology, and therefore provides a rich ground for collaboration between dispersed research teams. This makes it a challenge to stimulate collaboration on the same topic within such a diverse community. PI: Tom Wenseleers and Robby Stoks

RL6 Biodiversity: evolution of ecosystems: The conceptual integration of ecology and evolution has come with the realisation that the genomes of organisms do not only respond to changes in their environment, but also that on their turn they influence the environment in which they live. Trees in forests grown in response to the local climate and soil conditions, they optimise their genome to these conditions, but after some time the forest composed of these trees starts to influence the community of organisms living locally. Here evolution is studied at one of the highest levels of organisation, which makes that understanding the processes requires an understanding of the complexity of the system. Artificial ecosystems such as lab grown bacterial communities and mathematical models provide a first approach for study. More complex systems such as life in a pond system with bacteria, plankton and predators provide a scaled up version to understand the nature of feed forward and feed back interactions. The aim is to gather ecologists, evolutionary biologists, functional biologists, computational biologists and modelers on a few model systems. PI: Luc De Meester

Track record

Key publications

Claes, F. et al. 2005 Trypanosoma equiperdum: master of disguise or historical mistake? Trends in Parasitology 21: 316-321

Currie C.R., Poulsen M., Mendenhall J., Boomsma J.J. & Billen J. 2006 Coevolved crypts and exocrine glands support mutualistic bacteria in fungus-growing ants. Science 311: 81-83

Daniels, R., Reynaert, S., Hoekstra, H., Verreth, C., Janssens et al. 2006 Quorum signal molecules as biosurfactants affecting swarming in Rhizobium etli. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 103: 14965-14970

De Caestecker E., Gaba S., Raeymaekers J., Stoks R., Van Kerckhoven L., Ebert D., De Meester L. 2007. Host-parasite “Red Queen” dynamics archived in pond sediment. Nature 450: 870-874

Lee P.N., Callaerts P., de Couet H.G., Martindale M.Q. 2003 Cephalopod Hox genes and the origin of morphological novelties. Nature 424: 1061-1065

Lemey P, Pybus OG, Wang B, Saksena NK, Salemi M, Vandamme AM. 2003 “Tracing the origin and history of the HIV-2 epidemic”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 100: 6588-6592

Van Laere AS, Nguyen M, Braunschweig M, Nezer C, Collette C, Moreau L, Archibald AL, Haley CS, Buys N, Tally M, Andersson G, Georges M, Andersson L. 2003. A regulatory mutation in IGF2 causes a major QTL effect on muscle growth in the pig. Nature. 425: 832-836

Verheyen, E., Salzburger, W., Snoeks, J., Meyer, A. 2003 The origin of the superflock of cichlid fishes from Lake Victoria, East Africa. Science 300: 325-329

Large projects

  • KULeuven projects (GOA, IDO,...)
  • National projects (FWO research communities, IUAP, VIB,...)
  • EU (NoE Marine Genomics Europe, IP EURO-LIMPACS, ESF ConGen,...)
  • International projects (Fishbase, Honeybee genome sequencing consortium, Daphnia genome sequencing consortium, INIBAP Transit Centrum,...)

Achievement and awards

  • Events : CEB contact day, 6th Int. Meeting on Yeast Apoptosis 2008,...)
  • Awards: young researcher prize (Onderzoeksraad KULeuven) dr. Tom Wenseleers (2006), dr. honoris causa Daniel Pauly (UCB; 2008) and Michel Georges (Ulg; 2004)