Cyanide-eating butterflies led to Charles Perkins Centre appointment

Professor David RaubenheimerThe Charles Perkins Centre is committed to finding new ways of tackling obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The appointment of Professor David Raubenheimer highlights the unusual twists and turns on the centre’s journey to achieving its mission.

Professor Raubenheimer has taken up the Leonard P Ullmann Chair in Nutritional Ecology, the first of several chairs that will be funded by the proceeds of the 2011 sale of a Picasso donated to the University to raise funds for scientific research.

Professor David Raubenheimer‘s 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 consuming them. The term ‘nutritional ecology’ was coined in the 1980s when scientists began to understand the importance of how animals access and use nutrients.

Since then, Professor Raubenheimer has conducted groundbreaking research around the world, studying an incredibly diverse range of animals from gorillas to pandas, grizzly bears to Tasmanian devils, snow leopards to elephants.

Among the many important discoveries made by Professor Raubenheimer and his collaborators is that humans keep eating until they satisfy their need for protein. This is 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,” explains Professor Raubenheimer. “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 as part of the University’s Faculty of Veterinary Science and the School of Biological Sciences (in the Faculty of Science). He will be drawing on the expertise of both disciplines, following the same principle inherent in nutritional ecology, which is 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,” he says.

“Personally it means the culmination of my work as a comparative nutritional ecologist. I’ve gone from using insects to pioneer a new approach to animal nutrition, to extending this method to understand the biology of a wide range of species, from fish to gorillas and humans. It is clear that this approach can help to solve a range of problems, such as the conservation of endangered species, optimising diets for healthy ageing, and human obesity.”

Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre, Professor Stephen Simpson welcomes the arrival of Professor Raubenheimer to lead the nutrition research theme: “Having worked with David in the field, I know his contribution to the centre will play a key role in our aim of translating cross-disciplinary research into real-world solutions.”