Terry Burke – recipient of the 2009 Molecular Ecology Prize


  • Jon Slate

  • Wilson wrote ‘It is a wonderful thing to grow up in southern towns where animal fables are taken half-seriously, breathing into the adolescent mind a sense of the unknown and the possibility that something extraordinary might be found within a day’s walk of where you live. No such magic exists in the environs of Schenectady, Liverpool, and Darmstadt, and for all children dwelling in such places where the options have finally been closed, I feel a twinge of sadness’.

J. Slate;
E-mail: j.slate@sheffield.ac.uk

Terry Burke has long been one of the leading figures in the field of molecular ecology. He is a worthy winner of this year’s prize on several counts, most notably for his pioneering work on using molecular tools to study individual variation and mating systems. Indeed, it could be argued that he is the first recipient of the prize who predominantly studies variation between individuals rather than populations or species.

Terry was born and brought up in Liverpool where, according to some (Wilson 1996), he was very unlikely to encounter anything natural.1 Despite these odds, he developed an early interest in natural history via many of the traditional (but decreasingly common) routes such as collecting caterpillars, finding birds’ nests and catching newts in the local parks, and bike rides into the countryside. Later he was especially interested by ecology and genetics in his high-school biology classes, and was inspired by EB Ford’s Ecological Genetics to get his first grant (£65 from the Ford Trust) to study the hindwing spots of Maniola jurtina in the Outer Hebrides. He graduated from the University of Wales (Bangor) with a Zoology BSc and followed this with a PhD in Nottingham, where he used allozymes to study the ecological genetics, especially reproductive behaviour, of house sparrows. He then won his first fellowship and moved to Herbert Macgregor’s lab at the Zoology Department in Leicester, where he planned to use DNA markers to study the evolutionary genetics of European newts. However, events in Leicester at that time were to play a key role in Terry’s career, and indeed the emergence of Molecular Ecology.

One of the reasons why Terry moved to Leicester was that the biology departments were, relatively speaking, DNA pioneers. Not long after he arrived he learned from John Brookfield in the Genetics Department about Alec Jeffreys’ discovery of hypervariable minisatellite loci and ‘DNA fingerprints’ (Jeffreys et al. 1985). Terry was in the audience in the Genetics coffee room when Jeffreys unveiled his amazing discovery and, for somebody who had been frustrated by the low power of allozymes for parentage analysis, the potential of fingerprinting for behavioural ecology studies was immediately obvious.

Terry was the lead author of one of the two papers, published back-to-back in Nature (Burke & Bruford 1987; Wetton et al. 1987) that paved the way for behavioural ecologists to reliably describe animal mating systems. These, and other early studies, showed that extra-pair paternities (EPPs) were nearly always a feature of socially monogamous bird mating systems. In collaboration with Nick Davies, Terry showed that competition for paternity in polyandrous dunnock (Prunella modularis) trios – the most common mating arrangement in this species – causes males and females to have different reproductive interests (sexual conflict) and that males modify their parental care according to their perceived likelihood of paternity (Burke et al. 1989). Further high-impact fingerprinting papers followed, of which a notable highlight was the finding that females seek extra-pair paternities with high-quality males (Kempenaers et al. 1992).

Although fingerprinting had become a tractable technique for demonstrating EPPs, paternity assignment proved more difficult as multilocus fingerprints could not be readily digitized into a database, making comparison of individuals run on different gels very difficult. Terry’s lab therefore invested significantly in single-locus markers – minisatellites initially – with which they showed that male reed buntings adjust their extent of paternal investment according to how likely they are to be the true father (Dixon et al. 1994). By the early 1990s it was clear that fingerprinting had been superseded by the microsatellite. It is a hallmark of Terry’s research that he has been quick to recognize which new innovations and technologies are likely to really move a field forward (and which ones are not – you won't find any papers using RAPDs on his CV!). His group was at the forefront of the microsatellite revolution, developing new markers for numerous species (of which more later). This not only led to further high-quality papers describing mating systems e.g. (Double et al. 1997; Griffith et al. 1999; Richardson et al. 2001; Carpenter et al. 2005), but also an expansion of the groups’ research into conservation genetics (Rowe et al. 1999; Jehle et al. 2001; Jump et al. 2003) and gene mapping (Gibbs et al. 1997). More recently, microarrays, next-generation sequencing and high-throughput SNP genotyping platforms have been utilized to identify the genes that explain individual variation in traits that influence reproductive success. For example, recent papers describe the discovery (Nadeau et al. 2008; Vaez et al. 2008) and molecular evolution (Nadeau et al. 2007) of genes that determine plumage variation, and ongoing work seeks to identify the locus responsible for a genetic polymorphism for male mating tactics in the ruff Philomachus pugnax that was discovered by Terry and collaborators over a decade ago (Lank et al. 1995). By any standards, Terry’s publication record is impressive (∼200 papers, of which 11 are in Nature) and another 140 or so from his lab where he is not listed as an author. According to Terry this is because he has been lucky with graduate students (10 former students now have established academic positions), but of course top-quality students are drawn towards the labs generating the most exciting research.

Aside from his influential research output, Terry has played a key role in the emergence of the field in other ways. Along with Harry Smith and Ray Seidler he was one of the founding editors of Molecular Ecology in 1992. It seems the journal has a serendipitous conception, as the Leicester Botany (where Harry was based) and Zoology departments shared the same toilets, and Harry, an experienced journal editor, would regularly walk past a poster describing the work going on in Terry’s lab. Between them they persuaded Blackwell to invest in a new journal in the ‘genes and environment’ area. Terry served as Chief Editor from 1995–1999, by which time the annual page count had grown almost 10-fold and the journal had gone from quarterly to monthly issues. It was during this period that it became one of the leading ecology journals, a position it continues to enjoy today.

In 1998 Terry moved to the University of Sheffield. By now he was getting more requests from researchers (UK and overseas) to visit and work in the lab than could reasonably be accommodated. Fortunately, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) agreed to fund a molecular genetics facility (MGF) to provide training and resources to researchers who otherwise would not have access to molecular tools. Initially, the facility had just one member of staff, Deborah Dawson, who continues to coordinate it today. The MGF proved so successful that it rapidly grew both locally and elsewhere. It now has five nodes, which cover genotyping, sequencing, metabolomics, microarrays and bioinformatics, under the umbrella title NBAF (NERC Biomolecular Analysis Facility), and Terry is the coordinating director. The Sheffield branch of NBAF alone has supported over 100 projects, mostly on microsatellite development and genotyping, and many of today’s generation of molecular ecologists cut their teeth in this lab. Thus, in addition to Terry’s authored papers there are many other published studies where he is not an author but has played a key role in making the science happen.

In summary, Terry is a worthy winner of the prize, not only as a pioneering scientist, but also as a facilitator, editor and mentor. He is reportedly delighted to be this year’s recipient, although apparently his children did not really appreciate the achievement until it was explained that it was rather like being awarded a ‘Blue Peter’ badge (a reference that will resonate with anybody growing up in the UK in the last half century).