Future of evolution explored in prestigious fellowship

  • Date

    Thu 1 Feb 24

Dr Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill

The mysteries of evolution will be explored in a prestigious fellowship aiming to predict the future of the “most creative process ever known”.

Dr Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill, from the School of Life Sciences, will lead the study after being awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship.

The project team will use state-of-the-art machine learning to examine hundreds of thousands of images of mammal skulls and butterflies from UK museum collections.

This will include tests of the “evolutionary convergences” between marsupials and other mammals, such as marsupial and European moles, the extinct Tasmanian tiger and the wolf, or the sugar glider and flying squirrel.

This will allow the team to measure “natural experiments” in evolution, where the process has repeated in separate species.

It is hoped this could help predict the future of natural selection and how organisms could adapt as our environment changes.

Dr Hoyal Cuthill – who also works with the University’s Institute for Analytics and Data Science – said: “Biological evolution has been the most creative process ever known”.

“Increasing our understanding of the nature and predictability of biological evolution therefore offers new insights for the development of more open-ended evolutionary processes in AI and machine learning.”

Promising research

The project will collaborate with The Natural History Museum, the University of Cambridge and machine learning experts Cross Compass, Cross Labs, in Japan.

It will be funded with a slice of a £101m UKRI fund, which aims to support the nation’s most promising research leaders to tackle major global issues.

UKRI Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said: “UKRI’s Future Leaders Fellowships provide researchers and innovators with long-term support and training, giving them the freedom to explore adventurous new ideas, and to build dynamic careers that break down the boundaries between sectors and disciplines.”

The Future Leaders Fellowship scheme “empowers talented researchers and innovators to build the diverse and connected research and innovation system we need to shorten the distance between discovery and prosperity across the UK.”