Nature of Life Seminars

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The Nature of Life Seminars are organized by the Department of Ecological Science (AEW). We invite exciting international and national speakers, aiming to include both well-known established ecologists and rising young stars. The topics cover a broad ecological spectrum and are of interest not only to all ecologists, but also to most other biologists, environmental scientists and earth scientists (see below for info about previous speakers).


Previous seminars 2017:

12 December 2017

Vrije Universiteit, W&N building, Room C623

Prof. Dr. Guszti Eiben, Department of Computer Science, VU Amsterdam, will talk about:

Evolving robotic ecosystems

Guszti Eiben

Abstract: Evolutionary robotics (ER) is the art of employing evolution to develop the brains, the bodies, or both for autonomous robots. In this talk I explain the benefits of ER for engineering as well as for fundamental scientific studies. I argue that constructing systems of self-reproducing machines will lead to a new exciting mix of evolutionary computing, robotics, and artificial life with new challenges and opportunities. In particular, I outline the concept of EvoSphere, a robotic ecosystem that evolves in real space and real time and review on-going activities following up the “Robot Baby Project”, our first proof-of-concept implementation. I hope to inspire a discussion about the perspectives of using this technology for studies into evolution.

14 November 2017

Vrije Universiteit, W&N building, Room C623

Prof. Dr. Étienne Danchin, CNRS, Laboratoire Évolution & Diversité Biologique, will talk about:

Rethinking heredity to promote the inclusive evolutionary synthesis

Étienne Danchin

Abstract: Heredity can be defined as patterns of parent-offspring resemblance. It is a major factor of evolution by natural selection or drift. The mainstream vision of heredity tends to reduce heredity to the sole transmission of the DNA sequence. However, in the last 40 years, evidence has been accruing that parent-offspring resemblance also rests on other types of information that are not encoded in the DNA sequence ie that are not encoded in genes. In effect DNA sequence information is discovered as being far from being able to explain the whole complexity of life. Ironically this challenging of the mainstream vision resulted from the very success of that approach as it is the fantastic development of DNA sequencing technologies that revealed the limits of a gene-only vision of life. After a few definitions, I will present two diagrams that I suggest can help better understanding inheritance. I will then develop 3 general examples of nongenetic inheritance to illustrate the fact that it is pervasive, and the subtlety of nongenetic inheritance. The last example will present my own research on animal culture and its potential impact on evolution. Building on these examples, I will work at unifying these elements into what I call an 'Inclusive Evolutionary Synthesis' (IES) that would generalise the modern synthesis of evolution, with the ambition to encompass all dimensions of heredity, be they genetic or nongenetic. IES thus does not contradict the modern Synthesis of evolution but rather generalizes it with the ambition to better capture all the complexity of life. In the end I will quickly discuss the importance of nongenetic inheritance for evolution, conservation and medical sciences.


10 October 2017 15:45 - 17:00

Vrije Universiteit, W&N building, Room C623

Prof. Dr. Bertrand Boeken, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, will talk about:

Land degradation and resilience of semi-arid shrubland under grazing and drought
 Bertrand Boeken

Abstract: Semi-arid shrubland in the Middle East (with 150-200mm/yr of rainfall in winter), is very heterogeneous with small shrub patches within a matrix of biocrust. Both patch types are made by ecosystem engineers – dwarf shrubs accumulating sediment and water in a soil mound, and cyanobacteria forming flat, dense surface. Their contrasting topography, cover, surface and soil properties create open landscapes, where horizontal source-sink relations between the patches control resource distribution, biotic productivity and diversity, and landscape structure. Over the last 27 years, I have been involved in studying these relationships in semi-arid shrublands in the Park Shaked LTER Station in the northern Negev of Israel. The station has variable grazing by sheep, from exclosures to modrately grazed areas, with heavy grazing outside the station. Hence our research could address the pressing ecological problem of what constitutes sustainable grazing in drylands.
Livestock grazing can disrupt the intricate feedback interactions between the biotic and abiotic components governing ecosystem dynamics. This form of degradation is found where grazing is very heavy, eliminating shrub patches and disturbing the bio crust, generating strong down-slope runoff with sediment and gully erosion, up to flash floods and inundations.
On the other hand, moderate grazing may have positive effects on the maintenance of functional patchiness. This became evident over the last two decades, as two sequences of two dry years (<50% of average) resulted in high shrub mortality – especially in areas that were not grazed. In parts of the slope with sparse annual vegetation cover, due to moderate grazing or otherwise, mortality of late-successional dwarf-shrubs was lower, and while seed establishment of pioneer patch formers occurred only there, implying both patch maintenance and renewal.


13 June 2017 15:45 - 17:00

Vrije Universiteit, W&N building, Room M655

Prof. Dr. Tjeerd Bouma, NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, Yerseke, will talk about:

Small-scale process as landscape drivers: unraveling the dynamics in coastal vegetation

Tjeerd Bouma

Abstract: There is a growing desire to manage (and even create) coastal vegetation such as e.g. salt marshes, mangroves and seagrasses for coastal defense. Such application however requires in depth understanding of the dynamic horizontal extent (i.e., width) of these ecosystems. Especially understanding the factors affecting the minimum vegetation width is important. This presentation will highlight how process-based studies can help to provide insight in which factors affect the long-term large-scale development of salt marsh and other coastal vegetation. Recently it was found that vegetation establishment can be described by the Windows of Opportunity theory. Having this mechanistic understanding enables us to develop means to restore coastal ecosystems. Moreover, it allows us to gain a basic insight in which factors determine the minimum-width of a salt marsh, and how dredging material may potential be used to initiate marsh growth. Recent insights explaining that the short-term vertical sediment dynamics on the bare tidal flat is a key driver of the lateral vegetation dynamics, emphasizes that we should start with continuous monitoring of such sediment-dynamics. The vegetation response to the short-term vertical sediment dynamics can however be highly species specific, resulting in species-specific large-scale ecosystem dynamics. Experimental process-based studies remain of key importance for understanding ecosystem dynamics in addition to the rapidly developing earth observation techniques and modeling capabilities.


9 May 2017 15:45 - 17:00Yann-Hautier

Vrije Universiteit, W&N building, Room M655

Dr.Yann Hautier, Assistant Professor in Ecology and Biodiversity, Utrecht University, will talk about:

Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in a changing world


Biodiversity is being reduced in many local ecosystems while also becoming increasingly homogenized across space. With consensus emerging from experiments that the reduction of plant diversity at the local scale decreases the functioning of our ecosystems including food for domestic livestock and the storage of carbon, the key question has become whether such effect is real and important in natural ecosystems. This is especially important as those systems undergo anthropogenic global changes, cover larger spatial scale and sustain many functions simultaneously. In this presentation, I will compare results from experimental manipulation of plant diversity with recent advances in natural grassland ecosystems. I will show that plant diversity, at both local and landscape scales, contributes to the maintenance of multiple ecosystem services provided by natural grasslands. I will also demonstrate that global environmental changes threaten the functioning and stability of grassland ecosystems worldwide.

Nieuw: Component



11 April 2017 15:45 - 17:00

Vrije Universiteit, W&N building, Room M655

Prof. dr. Bente Jessen Graae, Dept. of Biology, NTNU, Trondheim, Norway will talk about

Climate impact on Arctic/alpine plant communities

Bente Jessen Graae


Climate impact on Arctic/alpine plant communities

Climate is important for the functioning and distribution of plants and vegetation, and the impact of temperature has been intensively studied for Arctic/alpine plants and vegetation. The climatic niches of plant species are however, not easily described. First, the vast majority of plant populations are found in landscapes with high spatially and temporally microclimatic variation. Secondly, the climatic properties of maximum, minimum and accumulated temperatures during growing season as well as winter temperatures affect different life history processes to various degrees. Thirdly, microclimate interacts with other environmental variation, for instance nutrient content in soils. Fourth, understanding Arctic/alpine vegetation response to climate further requires knowledge of the biotic interactions operating in the system. In this talk, I will review some of our knowledge on climate impact on Arctic/alpine vegetation and discuss challenges we meet when wanting to predict vegetation responses to a warmer climate.


14 March 2017      15:45-17:00
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, W&N building, Room M-655

Dr. Stineke van Houte, Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, will speak about:

Ecology and evolution of bacterial adaptive immune systems

Bacteria have a wide range of immune strategies to defend against viruses, including innate immunity by surface modification and adaptive immunity by CRISPR-Cas. In her talk she will discuss ecological factors that can tip the balance in the evolution of these immune strategies and discuss their co-evolutionary implications.



10 January 2017  15.45-17.00 
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, W&N building, Room P663

Dr Jorien VonkDr Jorien Vonk (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Cluster Earth and Climate)

Organic matter fluxes of inland and coastal waters in permafrost regions

Abstract:  Circum-arctic frozen soils contain twice as much organic carbon as is currently present as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. When permafrost thaws, the soil organic carbon within it becomes available for remobilization and introduction into inland and coastal aquatic systems. Here it can either be degraded, generating greenhouse gases, or be transported and buried in short and long-term reservoirs, attenuating greenhouse gas emissions. Here I present an overview of our current knowledge on riverine and coastal organic carbon fluxes in permafrost regions. I will also discuss the factors that determine the release and degradability of this carbon (i.e. potential greenhouse gas production), and will discuss how we expect this to change in the future.