How cyanide-eating butterflies led to Charles Perkins Centre appointment

16 May 2013

Professor David Raubenheimer is a leader in the field of nutritional ecology research.
Professor David Raubenheimer is a leader in the field of nutritional ecology research.

"Nutritional ecology is so central to every aspect of life that it should be considered a foundational part of biology in the same way evolution is."

Professor David Raubenheimer, the first chair appointed to the Charles Perkins Centre, bases his claim for nutritional ecology on his lifetime's study of a vast variety of species to understand the causes and consequences of their food selection.

His path was set when, as a master's student, he studied butterflies which exclusively fed on cyanide-producing plants. There was extensive literature written on plant toxicology but very little on the nutrients the plants provided to the animals feeding on them. The term nutritional ecology was coined in the 1980s when the importance of how animals access and use nutrients began to be understood.

Since then Professor Raubenheimer has conducted groundbreaking research around the globe studying animals from gorillas to pandas, from sea otters to great white sharks, snow leopards and elephants.

Among nutritional ecology's many important discoveries is that humans keep eating until they satisfy their need for protein, of obvious importance when considering how to address the obesity epidemic.

"Evolution goes to the heart of biology and nutritional ecology does the same thing - reproduction, predator avoidance, population growth and decline, health, ecology - they are all underpinned by nutrition."

As the Leonard P Ullmann Chair in Nutritional Ecology, Professor Raubenheimer will be working with the University's Faculty of Veterinary Science and School of Biological Sciences. He will build links between each of these disciplines with the motivation, inherent in nutritional ecology, that research on animals and humans can be of mutual benefit.

"There is nothing like the Charles Perkins Centre currently in existence in terms of its breadth of focus and potential to bring the world's best together to work collaboratively on the problems of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

"Personally it means the culmination of my work as a comparative nutritional ecologist. I've gone from using locusts to pioneer a new approach to animal nutrition, to extending this method to understand the biology of a wide range of species from spiders to gorillas and humans. It is clear that this approach can help to solve a range of problems from conservation of endangered species, optimising diets for healthy ageing, and human obesity. This is the direction I am now taking my research".

"At the Charles Perkins Centre the cross-disciplinary potential of nutritional ecology will be realised in one of the world's finest multidisciplinary research centres."

Professor Raubenheimer is also excited that students will be trained in the mindset of cross-disciplinary research.

"For them, the next generation, this will be the norm, not the aspiration or exception."

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