Biology is the science of the 21st Century. Breakthroughs in new genomic and visualisation technologies allow us an unprecedented window into the functioning of organisms. Also, critically, responses to climate change require an understanding of how organisms interact with each other and the physical environment. The intellectual and practical challenges and research opportunities span the entire biological spectrum, from the functioning of genes and biomolecules to whole networks of genes, tissues, individuals and ecological communities.
With its internationally-renowned research in functional genomics, plant physiology, bionanoscience, animal behaviour and sensory biology, and ecosystem structure and conservation, Bristol's School of Biological Sciences is well-placed to lead the way. The School of Biological Sciences is unusual among the leading, medium-sized, UK Biology departments in that it excels at all levels of biological organisation, from molecules to ecosystems.
The School also benefits from being embedded in the exceptionally strong Science Faculty, stimulating interdisciplinary research. Biological Sciences' staff have fostered close research links with the departments of Mathematics, Computer Science, Chemistry, Physics, Experimental Psychology and Veterinary Medicine and are key players in university-wide research themes such as Complexity, Predictive Life Science, Nanoscience, Bristol Vision and Animal Behaviour and Welfare. This creates novel research opportunities, from the application of laser vibrometry to insect hearing to optical tweezer technology, bird vision, computer vision to wildlife tracking, to name but a few.
Animals interact with the environment and each other through behaviour and the senses. These areas of research are crucial to understanding social behaviour, population processes, and how animals respond and adapt to a changing world, and for the control of pests or vectors of disease, and the welfare of livestock.
Animal behaviour is one of the primary strengths of the Behaviour, Sensory and Neurobiology Group - which spans multiple departments and was highlighted as world class in two successive government-led Research Assessment Exercises. This research covers both theory and experiment, field and lab, “pure” and applied biology (particularly animal welfare) and is recognised in a University Research Centre that provides a focus for collaboration and interdisciplinary training.
The focus of the School of Biological Sciences is the study of the function and evolution of animal decision-making and how individual decisions contribute to social behaviour. Amongst the School's staff are world leaders in theoretical behavioural and evolutionary ecology (particularly the application of Optimality and Evolutionary Game Theory), sexual selection, cooperation, parental care, and social behaviour and collective decision-making. In sensory biology, our core research areas are vision and hearing, including echolocation in bats. As with behaviour, this interdisciplinary research draws strength from the University's support of a cross-faculty research theme, the Bristol Vision Institute, and the new Nanoscience and Quantum Information centre. Some research highlights include the first studies of the function of ultraviolet vision in birds, novel adaptations for vision in the deep ocean, pioneering studies of the interrelationship between echolocation, flight and morphology, and the nano-scale mechanisms of insect hearing and mechanoreception.
Food production and security, control of economically or medically/veterinarily important diseases, and the preservation of biodiversity in the face of climate change - beyond species of direct commercial importance -are key issues facing humanity. The Plant and Pathogen Biology Group's particular focus is on the biology of crop plants and their viral and fungal diseases. The School hosts the university's transcriptomics facility, which, using next generation sequencing equipment, leads the UK's wheat genome project. Researchers are also doing pioneering work in plant water balance, which includes cell signalling and the control of respiration at the leaf surface, and - at the other end of the plant - root hair growth and development. Plant & Pathogen Biology group members are key players in the University's Predictive Life Sciences network, which brings together scientists from biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, mathematics and computer science to study system biology.
Climate change has been identified by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council as the single most important priority for environmental research. To the biologist, the challenge goes farbeyond the responses of individuals: we must understand how whole ecosystems react, their stability to perturbation, and, in the longer term, how networks of species evolve - or become extinct. The Ecological and Evolutionary Processes Group's internationally-recognised research is aimed at understanding the ecological and evolutionary relations between organisms (plant, animal or microbe) at individual, population and community levels, as well as between organisms and their environments.
This research includes the study of anthropogenic influences on organisms in their natural habitats, as well as in managed (e.g. agricultural) ecosystems. For example, effects of land-use change on species' success and diversity and on ecosystem integrity, the impact of organic versus intensive farming on food webs and ecosystem function, how land use affects water quality, host-parasite interactions and the population dynamics of parasites of veterinary importance. Animal ecology studies cover a wide range of habitats around the globe, including tropical rainforests, deserts, oceanic islands, savannahs, marine and freshwater habitats and urban/farmland environments. The applications of this research include ecosystem management, wildlife conservation, environmental and biological control, agricultural practice, animal husbandry, and policy consultation.