Scientific Research Project Title

Titel Elucidating the evolutionary consequences of cryptic genetic variation and phenotypic plasticity for fungal host-shifts

Research Institution

University of Copenhagen

Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences


Evolutionary ecology


Telephone: +45 35320097

Research leader

Henrik H. De Fine Licht

Associate Professor, Biology, born 1979

Project title

How does evolution and plasticity influence pathogenic fungal host-shifts?

What is your project about?

Global warming, modern growing practices in the agricultural sector, and global transport of biological material imply that more pathogenic microorganisms are exposed to new potential hosts. This may eventually lead to infection of new species, but generally we know very little about why some pathogens readily infect new host species and others do not even after repeated exposure. In this project, I will use insect-pathogenic fungi to create artificial host-shifts in the laboratory. This will allow us to trace genetic and phenotypic changes in the pathogenic fungi through all phases of these artificial host-shifts, from the first exposure through subsequent passages in the new host and until the pathogenic fungi are expected to show beginning adaptation to the new host.

Henrik de Fine Licht - InficeredeGræshopper-01-02.jpg


The image shows water rashs infected with the Metarhizium acridum sponge that specifically attacks grasshopper. The fungus has begun to grow out of the dead grasshoppers and has formed green spores in several places on the body. It is among other things this fungus that we in the project will manipulate to infect other insect species. Photographer: Myrsini Natsopoulou


How did you become interested in your particular field of research?

As long as I can remember I have been interested in nature and animal behavior. During my studies, I became fascinated by how different organisms such as for example insects and microbes influence each other – both positively and negatively. Ever since, obtaining a better understanding of the interplay between the evolutionary and ecological factors that influence interactions between organisms have had my interest. To study these fundamental principles of organismal interactions, I investigate the interactions between insects such as flies, locusts, and butterfly larvae and different insect-pathogenic fungi.

What are the scientific challenges and perspectives in your project?

It is very difficult to study host-shifts in nature, because we often first observe that a fungus has started to infect a new host species when sufficient individuals become ill. At this point, the pathogenic fungus has already circumvented the first hindrances, and what we observe is the beginning adaptive process towards the new host. By moving the whole process into the laboratory, we get a much better control of what happens at the very first pathogenic encounters with the new host. But it will be a challenge to detect and follow the likely small but crucial changes in fungual gene expression. The perspectives of this research are great. Fundamentally, we are looking at how organisms adapt to new environments and how phenotypic plasticity influences adaptive evolution. 

What is your estimate of the impact, which your project may have to society in the long term?

The artificial host-shifts that we will create in this project will clarify whether pathogen plasticity after a host-shift follow similar and potentially predictable evolutionary trajectories, and how standing genetic variation influence the possibility for pathogenic fungi to make a host-shift. It is our hope, that a better understanding of pathogenic fungal host-shifts can help us to eventually be able to predict future host-shifts. This would potentially have wide implications for those sectors of our food production, health sector and biodiversity that currently suffers from infections by pathogenic fungi. 

Which impact do you expect the Sapere Aude programme will have on your career as a researcher?

This grant from the Sapere-Aude program will have a large impact on my career. It will allow me expand and consolidate my research group and lead a new area of research. In addition, this project will expand my international scientific network and I look very much forward to start collaborations with leading international groups.

Background and personal life

I am born in Copenhagen but grew up on Southern Zealand and Southern Jutland. I live on Frederiksberg together with my girlfriend Anne and our two girls, Asta and Ingrid.

City of your current residence: 

High school:
Sønderborg Statsskole