Mathematical Models of Evolution

Nick Barton

Nick Barton and his group study diverse topics in evolutionary genetics, but focus on the evolution of populations that are distributed through space, and that experience natural selection on many genes. Understanding how species adapt, and how they split into new species, requires understanding of spatial subdivision, whilst interactions between genes are important in species formation, and in the response to selection. The recent flood of genomic data makes analysis of the interactions amongst large numbers of genes essential.

Nick Barton
Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria)
Am Campus 1
A – 3400 Klosterneuburg

Phone: +43 (0)2243 9000-3001

Barton Group website

Christine Ostermann

Phone: +43 (0)2243 9000-1071


Current Projects

  • Hybrid zones
    Many species are subdivided into a mosaic of genetically distinct populations, which are separated by narrow hybrid zones. These provide natural laboratories for investigating how diverging populations become distinct species. We are studying the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of hybrid zones between two species of Antirrhinum (snapdragons) with different flower colours. In collaboration with researchers in the UK and France, we are using a range of ecological field work, population genetic and genomic approaches to gain a better understanding of how these Antirrhinum species diverged during the speciation process and how the separate species are maintained in the face of gene flow. 
  • Spatially continuous populations
    Classical models assume that individuals reproduce and disperse independently, and so miss many features of real populations. Correlations between genes reveal their shared history, patterns may extend over very large spatial scales, and diversity is often lower than expected from the number of individuals. The Barton Group is working with Alison Etheridge (Oxford) on a model of long-range extinction and recolonisation that includes these features.
  • Evolution of sex and recombination
    Why do almost all eukaryotes reproduce sexually? The most plausible explanation is that recombination helps to bring together favorable gene combinations, thus accelerating adaptation. The challenge is to find how recombination is favoured, given that selection acts on a very large number of genes. We are analyzing a variety of stochastic models of selection on multiple recombining loci.
  • Limits to selection
    How can the development of extraordinarily complex morphologies and behaviors be guided by a functional genome of ~108 bases – much less information than is held in a personal computer? This issue is relevant not only to natural selection, but also to evolutionary computation, in which selection is used to evolve better algorithms. We are studying the relation between information, entropy, and fitness.
  • Statistical mechanics and the evolution of quantitative traits
    We have formalized an analogy between statistical mechanics and population genetics; the results are applied to study the evolution of quantitative traits, allowing for arbitrary interaction effects.

We also study several other topics in evolutionary genetics, including the limits to a species' range, models of sympatric speciation, and methods for inferring population structure.

Selected Publications

  • Weissmann DB, Barton NH. 2012. Limits to the rate of adaptation in sexual populations. PLoS Genetics 8:e1002740.
  • Barton NH, Turelli M. 2011. Spatial waves of advance with
    bistable dynamics: cytoplasmic and genetic analogs of the
    Allee effect. American Naturalist 178: E48–75.
  • Barton NH, Briggs DEG, Eisen JA, Goldstein DB, Patel NH.
    2007. Evolution. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.


2008 Professor, IST Austria
1990 Fellow/Chair, University of Edinburgh, UK
1982–1990 Lecturer/Reader, University College London, UK
1980–1982 Demonstrator, Cambridge University, UK
1979 PhD, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK

Selected Distinctions

ISI Highly Cited Researcher

2013 Mendel Medal, German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
2009 ERC Advanced Investigator Grant
2009 Linnean Society Darwin-Wallace Medal
2006 Royal Society Darwin Medal
2001 President, Society for the Study of Evolution (on Council 2000–2002)
1998 American Society of Naturalists President's Award
1995 Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh
1994 Fellow, Royal Society of London
1994 David Starr Jordan Prize

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