School of Natural and Environmental Sciences

Staff Profile

Dr Kirsten Wolff

Reader in Evolutionary Genetics



University of Groningen, the Netherlands:
1974 Bachelors degree pharmaceutics
1977 Bachelors degree biology
1982 MSc biology: Population genetics and plant physiology
1988 PhD: Faculty of Natural Sciences, title: “Natural selection in Plantago species: a genetical analysis of ecologically relevant morphological variability”

Previous Positions

2002 – now Reader in Evolutionary Genetics at University of Newcastle
1999 – 2002 Lecturer at the University of Newcastle
1998 - now Honorary Lecturer at the University of St Andrews
1998 - 1999 Associate Professor at the Dept. of Botany, Univ. Neuchâtel, Switzerland
1995 - 1998 Teaching and Research Fellow at the Univ. of St Andrews, Scotland
1991 - 1995 Research Associate University of Leiden, the Netherlands
1990 Research Associate, Population genetics group University of Groningen
1988 - 1989 Science Fellowship of NWO, Prof. Schaal, Washington Univ., St. Louis, USA
1983 - 1987 Science Fellowship (PhD) NWO (BION)
1977 - 1982 Demonstrator practical courses (total 9) Population Genetics, Plant Physiology


Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology
Genetics Society
British Ecological Society
Botanical Society of the British Isles
Botanical Society of America
European Society of Evolutionary Biology
Soc Molecular Biology and Evolution 


Dutch is my mother tongue
Fluent in English, fair in German and French

Informal Interests

Choir singing

link to my Google Scholar page


Research Interests

I have a broad research interest in molecular evolution and molecular ecology.
- What is the origin of genetic variation in populations and how is genetic variation in populations maintained?
- How do different genomes and parts of the DNA evolve in plants?
- What influences population structure in general?
- Plant mating systems and their effects.
- What are the influence of natural selection and gene flow on populations and species relationships in the genera Plantago and Tilia?

Other Expertise

The use of molecular tools for individuals identification in wild species as well as in cultivated species.

Current Work

The lab concentrates on two projects at the moment.

Inter-genomic conflict in gynodioecy and its effects on molecular evolution of mitochondrial genomes

This is a substantial standard NERC funded project that investigates the mechanisms that cause and maintain sex phenotype polymorphism in Plantago. We will compare DNA sequence variation at the mitochondrial DNA and the nuclear DNA across arange of Plantago species. The project is a collaboration with Prof Charlesworth, Edinburgh University

Evolution and Population Genetics in the Genus Tilia

This project investigates genetic variation in lime trees, Tilia cordata and T. platyphyllos and their hybrid. Two PhD students are working on this project.

Visit the Green fingers lab!

Link to my Google Scholar page

Research Roles

I am responsible for supervising and training PhD students in population genetics and molecular ecology.

Esteem Indicators

Peer Review College NERC (2008 - 2011 and from 2014)
NERC standard grant panel (2008 - 2011, 2014)
Member of the steering committee of NERC’s molecular facilities in Sheffield (2002 - 2007)
Expert evaluator EU proposals, Brussels
Member of the Visiting Group of Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh on invitation of Scottish Office (SEERAD)
Member of Scientific Board and panel of Norwegian Research Council (2007 - 2009)
Member of Scientific Board of SEERAD, reviewing grant proposals


Recent funding:

NERC project

"Inter-genomic conflict in gynodioecy and its effects on molecular evolution of mitochondrial genomes""

with Prof Deborah Charlesworth, FRS, Edinburgh University

Examples of past funding: 

- EU Marie Curie Intra-European fellowship of Dr Lagisz 

- EU Marie Curie Training Site Fellowship "Molecular Tools in Evolutionary and Ecological Research, MOTIVE", PI and co-ordinator

- Standard NERC project with Prof. Marion Petrie: "Maternal, paternal and genetic compatibility effects on fertility and offspring growth and sex in peafowl (Pavo cristatus)"


Various engagement activities have taken place over the last few years. Here are some examples

• Horticulture and agriculture.
Since 2006 I have engaged closely with horticultural breeders Penny and David Ross through a DNA fingerprinting research project on a rare garden plant, Hesperantha (Schizostylus), for economical/societal benefit. After a recent publication (2009) further outcomes will be a public lecture and publications in the popular press, including a special issue of ‘the Plantsman’ in 2013, celebrating a jubilee of Plant Heritage National Plant Collection. This is of economical as well as cultural and intellectual value for the breeders and growers.
• I was one of four authors of the plant DNA fingerprinting specialist book. This was written with a broad audience in mind and has become a golden standard for many horticultural and agricultural institutes all over the world.

In my current NERC grant I put together a substantial package of engagement activities related to that grant, which will take place over the next few years. I will engage with breeders through an EU COST project as well as contribute to a meeting of the European Association for Research on Plant Breeding (EUCARPIA). Public workshops will be organised at Royal Botanic Garden as well as Moorbank, around the theme of plant reproduction, British Science Festival

  • March 2004 Durham, Institute of Biology, anniversary lectures
  • Darwin’s celebrations, presented at the Phil and Lit society 4 Febr 2009, Darwin’s origins 150, reading group
  • Popular article in Genetics society news about lime trees, celebrating a field trip
  • Popular article in March 2012 Forest ecology bulletin (mainly read by foresters and woodland managers)
  • Presenting at stake-holders conference in Sheffield 2011 and 2012 (main interaction with foresters and woodland managers, and amateurs, e.g. Find a tree
  • Work on Tilia already done with Historic Landscape (Sarah Couch) and National Trust (Lindsay Moore) to determine which genotype of lime tree should be used to replace trees died/felled in historic lime avenue. Work with lime tree growers for cultivar identification. More of this type of work and publicity will follow.
  • I organised discussion 'are we still evolving' at the Science festival Sept 2013 in Newcastle
  • I gave a public lecture 'Tilia and it s evolution', Northumberland Natural History Soc Oct 2014.
  • I gave to public lectures for 'Plant Heritage' on Hesperantha and Tilia cultivars.
  • Training the next generation of scientist is one of my great passions. I have done this at a European scale through leading the Marie Curie Training site with 12 students. 

Industrial Relevance

Director and co-founder of Bioprofiles Ltd., a biotech company that delivers a service of DNA fingerprinting of plants for a variety of purposes, such as tree root identification and cultivar identification. The new technologies I developed in the last decade were applied in the spin out company Bioprofiles Ltd The company mainly deals with DNA fingerprinting of tree roots implicated in building subsidence or drain damage; we are still the only company in the world that does this work. Therefore, we have 100% of the market in tree identification. The company serves insurance companies, arboricultural consultants, loss adjusters and councils. The new technologies I developed in the last decade were applied in the company. The company has expanded from two to 25 different clients. Examples of clients are Abbey National Insurance Ltd, John Cromar Arboricultural Consultants, Islington Council and Meridian Soils Ltd. My company makes it possible that trees are identified through DNA fingerprinting, especially for Tree Preservation Orders, aiding the conservation of trees in urban environments. The company has increased its turnover with 80% in the last 4 years and now has an employee for the day to day running of the company.
Additonal benefits are that the through the company there is a small income for the SoB. The enabling technologies have had an effect on policies, namely the new tree preservation order. Stakeholders have been made aware of the technologies and the new Tree Preservation Order (April 2012) now often requires DNA fingerprinting of protected trees before felling or treatment. Insurance companies and Councils rely on our service for solving their most difficult disputes regarding subsidence cases. I also have written popular article in loss adjuster news letter to explain Bioprofiles’ services.
 For further information: click on Bioprofiles


Undergraduate Teaching

BIO2008 Evolutionary and Population Genetics (Module Leader)
BIO3041 Molecular Evolution and Systematics

Postgraduate Teaching

BIO8052 Genetically Modified Organisms

Administrative duties

Chair Board of Examiners MSc degrees (till November 2013)
Webmaster School of Biology (till November 2013)
Admissions PGT and PGR (2013/14)
ERASMUS and Science without Borders coordinator (from 2013/14)

Member of Senate (2009-2012)

Faculty Appointment committee (2012-2014)