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Summer Research: What do the academics get up to while we’re away?

While most of us students have been enjoying a few months off after our exams back in May, our academics have been hard at work here in London getting some research done. So here’s a quick glimpse at a few of the projects that they’ve been working on:

The hormone Oxytocin is well known to play a role in building strong relationships, but a study has been published in the journal BMC Biology showing that the hormone also plays a role in the feeding behaviour of the common European starfish (Asterias rubens).

Professor Maurice Elphick, of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences here at QMUL, said in a press release: “Our study has provided important new evidence that oxytocin-type molecules are important and ancient regulators of feeding in animals. So oxytocin is much more than a ‘love hormone’ – perhaps especially for animals like starfish that don’t fall in love!”

The study found that a few minutes after being injected with the hormone, the starfish would adopt a ‘humped’ posture similar to the one used when feeding. They would then evert their stomachs through their mouths, which is normally done to break down their prey (normally oysters or mussels) before ingesting it. This discovery therefore shows that molecules similar to oxytocin have been important in the nervous system of animals for over 500 million years.

Meanwhile in a joint study with the University of Oxford, a paradox surrounding the ancestry of the modern pig has been resolved. Previously, archaeological evidence of early domestication suggested that modern pigs should resemble wild boar found in the Near East. However, the genetics of modern European pigs is far closer to that of the European wild boar. So, what gives?

To find out, researchers analysed over 2000 mitochondrial DNA samples from across Europe, of which over 1300 were ancient samples, to try and find the cause of this discrepancy. Professor Greger Larson of Oxford University, who was the senior author of the study, said, “Having access to ancient genomes over such a large space and time has allowed us to see the slow-motion
replacement of the entire genome of domestic pigs.”

The results showed that when pigs first arrived in Europe approximately 8000 years ago, their genetics were very similar to those of the Near Eastern wild boar, as the archaeological evidence had suggested. However, over the following 3000 years the pigs interacted with the wild boar enough to replace nearly all of their Near Eastern genes. A small amount of this heritage still remains; which is believed to be where modern pigs get their coat colour from.

The team now hopes to use the genetic timeline they have created to identify which genes in modern European domestic pigs have kept their Near Eastern heritage, in order to try and determine whether artificial selection efforts by early farmers over 10000 years ago have left any lasting legacy in the pigs we see today, outside of the colour of their coats.

One professor, however, has decided to spend his summer in a slightly different manner. Professor Lars Chittka, who has the reputation of being the top-rated expert in bees in the world, has released a rock album. Alongside musicians Katie Green and Rob Alexander, he hopes to bring attention to the creatures in a new light as he explores different aspects of bees throughout the album.

“It was important for me not to write sentimental texts about quaint summer meadows and buzzing bees. As I am learning every day as someone who studies the psychology of bees, the world of pollinators and flowers is full of manipulation and trickery” said Professor Chittka.

You can purchase the album at, where all proceeds will go to Buglife: an insect conservation charity that works to protect and preserve insect habitats, raise awareness to the importance of insects to modern society and to help preserve endangered species.

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