"Center for Evolutionary medicine" established at the University of Zurich

At the University of Zurich, there is now a "Centre for Evolutionary Medicine”. Goal of this unique scientific centre – under the direction of the physician and mummy researcher Frank Rühli – is to learn more about the evolution of human diseases and their possible causes. The Zurich scientists work closely together with researchers from around the world. Thanks to a generous private donation, it is now possible for the first time to extensively study evolutionary-medical questions.

Evolutionary medicine, as a research area, deals with the evolution of pathogens and poses the basic question why do humans become ill. Evolutionary medicine is attaining an ever more important scientific value worldwide. Until now, there has been hardly any research focused on this topic in Switzerland. The newly-founded centre for evolutionary medicine (ZEM) at the University of Zurich, will act as a medical transdisciplinary bridge between the past, the present and the future in aspects of evolutionary medicine. Thanks to a generous endowment from a private foundation, the ZEM can operate in affiliation with the Institute of Anatomy (Faculty of Medicine, University of Zurich).

At the beginning, three main research groups will work on the topics “molecular evolutionary medicine”, “radio-diagnostic research” as well as “morphologic microevolution”. The frequency, the changes and the causes of various diseases are to be examined in relation to evolutionary changes over time. Work in the area of “molecular evolutionary medicine” is also dedicated to the extraction of genetic material from ancient mummies or skeletons (“ancient DNA”). This is the basis for studying the molecular development of infectious pathogens such as viruses or bacteria at ZEM. In order to conduct this research, a new highly-specialised laboratory was required. This laboratory was built with the support of the Swiss national fund. “Radio-diagnostic research” is a diagnostic technique predominantly based on the X-ray imaging of historical tissues, for example the determination of bone dense or soft tissue diseases. In the research field of "micro-evolution", predominantly short-term changes in human anatomy and disease patterns are studied. Examples are the specific construction of the human spinal column or an increase on body weight.

The ZEM is in terms of size and orientation, a worldwide pioneer project. Insights gained from an evolutionary medical point of view - for example from historic mummy tissues - should also be useful for current clinical and preventive medical practices. In addition to local co-operations, international partners are also involved, for example from Harvard University (USA), Tel Aviv University (Israel), The University of Adelaide (Australia) or the German cancer research centre in Heidelberg (D).