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Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

Dr Elze Hesse

Dr Elze Hesse

Senior Research Fellow

 01326 259469

 Environment and Sustainability Institute 2.33


Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall, TR10 9FE, UK


I am a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow based in the Environment & Sustainability Institure. I am interested in the ecological and evolutionary drivers underpinning microbial cooperation and exploitation. Following my early work on plant life history evolution, I became fascinated with the role of microbes in determining ecosystem and human health. This led me to move to the University of Exeter in Cornwall as a research fellow, where I developed an independent research program applying evolutionary theory to predict the consequences and trajectory of environmental challenges on cooperation, both within and across trophic levels. Understanding when and why different species cooperate allows us to predict how bacteria explore their environment and to harness these interactions to our own benefit.


2006 – PhD Evolutionary Ecology (University of Fribourg, Switzerland)

2001 – MSc Ecology (University of Groningen & Utrecht University, The Netherlands)

2000 – BSc Ecology (University of Groningen, The Netherlands)


2021: UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus.

2013 – 2021: PDRF, University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus.

2009 – 2012: PDRA, University of Leiden, The Netherlands.

2008 – 2009: Career break.

2008: Botanical consultant for BHP Billiton & Société des Mines de Fer de Guinée (July-Sept).

2006 – 2007: Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) research fellow, University of Oxford.

Research group links

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Research interests

• Species interactions and community dynamics

• Cooperation

• Experimental evolution

• Life-history evolution

• Plant–microbe interactions

• Social Evolution of metal-remediation

Research projects

My current research aims at understanding when and why different bacterial species cooperate. Microbial interactions are often mediated by secretion of extracellular ‘public-goods’– metabolically costly compounds that can benefit neighbouring individuals. The production of these public-goods can simultaneously benefit the community as well as the producer. Hence, the system is open to invasion by ‘cheats’ who contribute less than their fair share. This raises an important outstanding question – what are the key drivers maintaining community-wide public-goods cooperation? This is non-trivial as bacterial cooperation has important implications for ecosystem functioning and human health. Projects on public-goods cooperation and exploitation include:

(1) Social remediation of toxic metals

The production of toxic mine waste is a global problem. There is a clear need for sustainable remediation strategies that allow for rapid recovery of mining sites with minimal intervention. Unsurprisingly, researchers have started using microbes to clean up mine waste, mainly in the context of single species. But this is too simplistic: microbes work much better as a community in a ‘division of labour’. Mine wastes typically contain multiple toxic metals that pose serious threats to ecosystems and human health. When different species specialise to detoxify different metals, this is predicted to improve remediation. However, not all individuals might pay their fair share and cheat the system. This classic problem is well understood in evolutionary biology for single species, but not at the community level. Using the production of metal-chelating siderophores as a focal trait, our research aims to understand the conditions under which different species and individuals work best together to detoxify metals with the aim to develop sustainable remediation strategies.

(2) Plant-microbe interactions

Evidence is mounting that microbe-plant feedbacks are ubiquitous and a crucial determinant of their combined functioning. For example, plants and microbes produce signals that affect each other’s behaviour, often to mutual benefit. However, we have little understanding of how these interactions are affected by cooperation and conflict within the interacting microbial communities. This project aims to determine how siderophore-based cooperation affects plant-microbe interactions in the context of phytoremediation – the synergistic action between plants and microbes to clean up toxic mine waste.

(2) Bacterial interaction in natural communities

How microbes interact is fundamental to microbial community stability and function. The current consensus is that most microbial interactions in nature are competitive. However, this conclusion has largely arisen from studies measuring interactions between microbes that do not necessarily naturally interact with one another. Moreover, microbial interactions are typically measured under resource-rich artificial laboratory conditions over relatively short times scales. This project aims at determining how coevolutionary history and abiotic stress joinly influence the outcome of species interactions.

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Journal articles

Lear L, Padfield D, Hesse E, Kay S, Buckling A, Vos M (In Press). Copper Reduces the Virulence of Bacterial Communities at Environmentally Relevant Concentrations.
Lear L, Hesse E, Buckling A, Vos M (In Press). Copper Selects for Siderophore-Mediated Virulence in Pseudomonas Aeruginosa.
Vos M, Andreani NA (In Press). Prokaryote genome fluidity is dependent on effective population size. ISME Journal
Hesse E, O’brien S (2024). Ecological dependencies and the illusion of cooperation in microbial communities. Microbiology (United Kingdom), 170(2). Abstract.
Kelbrick M, Hesse E, O' Brien S (2023). Cultivating antimicrobial resistance: how intensive agriculture ploughs the way for antibiotic resistance. Microbiology (Reading), 169(8). Abstract.  Author URL.
Lear L, Hesse E, Newsome L, Gaze W, Buckling A, Vos M (2023). The effect of metal remediation on the virulence and antimicrobial resistance of the opportunistic pathogen <i>Pseudomonas aeruginosa</i>. Evolutionary Applications, 16(7), 1377-1389. Abstract.
Newbury A, Dawson B, Klümper U, Hesse E, Castledine M, Fontaine C, Buckling A, Sanders D (2022). Fitness effects of plasmids shape the structure of bacteria-plasmid interaction networks. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 119(22). Abstract.  Author URL.
Luján AM, Paterson S, Hesse E, Sommer LM, Marvig RL, Sharma MD, Alseth EO, Ciofu O, Smania AM, Molin S, et al (2022). Polymicrobial infections can select against Pseudomonas aeruginosa mutators because of quorum-sensing trade-offs. Nature Ecology and Evolution, 6(7), 979-988. Abstract.
Lear L, Hesse E, Buckling A, Vos M (2021). Copper selects for siderophore-mediated virulence in <i>Pseudomonas aeruginosa</i>. Abstract.
Hesse E, O'Brien S, Lujan AM, Sanders D, Bayer F, Veen EM, Hodgson DJ, Buckling A (2021). Stress causes interspecific facilitation within a compost community. ECOLOGY LETTERS, 24(10), 2169-2177.  Author URL.
Castledine M, Pennycook J, Newbury A, Lear L, Erdos Z, Lewis R, Kay S, Sanders D, Sünderhauf D, Buckling A, et al (2020). Characterising a stable five-species microbial community for use in experimental evolution and ecology. Abstract.
Lear L, Hesse E, Shea K, Buckling A (2020). Disentangling the mechanisms underpinning disturbance-mediated invasion. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 287(1919). Abstract.
Padfield D, Vujakovic A, Paterson S, Griffiths R, Buckling A, Hesse E (2020). Evolution of diversity explains the impact of pre-adaptation of a focal species on the structure of a natural microbial community. ISME J, 14(11), 2877-2889. Abstract.  Author URL.
Stilwell P, O'Brien S, Hesse E, Lowe C, Gardner A, Buckling A (2020). Resource heterogeneity and the evolution of public goods cooperation. EVOLUTION LETTERS, 4(2), 155-163.  Author URL.
Vos M, Sibleyras L, Lo LK, Hesse E, Gaze W, Klümper U (2020). Zinc can counteract selection for ciprofloxacin resistance. FEMS Microbiol Lett, 367(3). Abstract.  Author URL.
Hesse E, Padfield D, Bayer F, van Veen EM, Bryan CG, Buckling A (2019). Anthropogenic remediation of heavy metals selects against natural microbial remediation. Proc Biol Sci, 286(1905). Abstract.  Author URL.
Klümper U, Maillard A, Hesse E, Bayer F, Houte SV, Longdon B, Gaze W, Buckling A (2019). Short-term evolution under copper stress increases probability of plasmid uptake. Abstract.
Hernandez RJ, Hesse E, Dowling AJ, Coyle NM, Feil EJ, Gaze WH, Vos M (2019). Using the wax moth larva Galleria mellonella infection model to detect emerging bacterial pathogens. PeerJ, 6
Vos M, Sibleyras L, Lo LK, Hesse E, Gaze W, Klümper U (2019). Zinc can counteract selection for ciprofloxacin resistance. Abstract.
Hesse E, O'Brien S, Tromas N, Bayer F, Luján AM, van Veen EM, Hodgson DJ, Buckling A (2018). Ecological selection of siderophore-producing microbial taxa in response to heavy metal contamination. Ecol Lett, 21(1), 117-127. Abstract.  Author URL.
O'Brien S, Hesse E, Luján A, Hodgson DJ, Gardner A, Buckling A (2018). No effect of intraspecific relatedness on public goods cooperation in a complex community. Evolution, 72(5), 1165-1173. Abstract.  Author URL.
Zhao X-F, Buckling A, Zhang Q-G, Hesse E (2018). Specific adaptation to strong competitors can offset the negative effects of population size reductions. Proc Biol Sci, 285(1875). Abstract.  Author URL.
Hesse E, O’Brien S, Tromas N, Bayer F, Lujan A, Veen EV, Hodgson DJ, Buckling A (2017). Ecological selection of siderophore-producing microbial taxa in response to heavy metal contamination. Abstract.
Hesse E, Buckling A (2016). Host population bottlenecks drive parasite extinction during antagonistic coevolution. Evolution, 70(1), 235-240. Abstract.  Author URL.
Vos M, Mcleman, Buckling, Hesse, Sierocinski, Johnsen PJ, Perron GG, Huelter N (2016). No effect of natural transformation on the evolution of resistance to bacteriophages in the Acinetobacter baylyi model system. Scientific Reports
Hesse E, Best A, Boots M, Hall AR, Buckling A (2015). Spatial heterogeneity lowers rather than increases host-parasite specialization. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 28(9), 1682-1690. Abstract.
Hesse E, Best A, Boots M, Hall AR, Buckling A (2015). Spatial heterogeneity lowers rather than increases host-parasite specialization. J Evol Biol, 28(9), 1682-1690. Abstract.  Author URL.
de Jong TJ, Isanta MT, Hesse E (2013). Comparison of the crop species Brassica napus and wild B. rapa: characteristics relevant for building up a persistent seed bank in the soil. Seed Science Research, 23(3), 169-179.
de Jong TJ, Hesse E (2012). Selection against hybrids in mixed populations of Brassica rapa and Brassica napus: model and synthesis. New Phytologist, 194(4), 1134-1142.
Hesse E, Pannell JR (2011). Density‐dependent pollen limitation and reproductive assurance in a wind‐pollinated herb with contrasting sexual systems. Journal of Ecology, 99(6), 1531-1539.
Hesse E, Pannell JR (2011). Sexual Dimorphism in Androdioecious Mercurialis annua , a Wind-Pollinated Herb. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 172(1), 49-59.
Hesse E, Pannell JR (2011). Sexual dimorphism in a dioecious population of the wind-pollinated herb Mercurialis annua: the interactive effects of resource availability and competition. Annals of Botany, 107(6), 1039-1045.
Hesse E, Rees M, Müller-Schärer H (2008). Life-history variation in contrasting habitats: flowering decisions in a clonal perennial herb (Veratrum album). The American Naturalist, 172(5), 196-213.
Hesse E, Rees M, Müller-Schärer H (2006). Seed bank persistence of clonal weeds in contrasting habitats: implications for control. Plant Ecology, 190(2), 233-243.

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External Engagement and Impact

Associate Editor in Microbiology for Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological sciences.

Article and grant proposal reviewer for: American Journal of Botany, Annals of Botany, Biology Letters, Bioprocess and Biosystems Engineering, Ecology, Ecology Letters, Evolution, FEMS Microbiology Ecology, International Microbiology, International Journal of Plant Sciences, ISME Journal, Journal of Animal Ecology, Journal of Applied Ecology, Journal of Ecology, Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Microbiology, Oecologia, New Phytologist, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, PNAS, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Templeton Foundation.

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I am interested in the evolution of species interactions, and have used various models systems (plants, bacteria, virusus) to answer both fundamental and applied questions in evolutionary ecology. I am currently working on public goods cooperation in bacterial communities, and how different social strategies affect the way bacteria interact with plants. I am currently supervising research projects related to this topic.

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Supervision / Group

Postdoctoral researchers

  • Luke Lear

Research Technicians

  • Ruth Warfield

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Office Hours:

Monday 1-5

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