Biology at Peterhouse

Peterhouse is an excellent college for biology. Arguably, we are the best college for biologists with interests in ecology and conservation; certainly we provide the best opportunities for student with those interests. We have established opportunities for internships on conservation projects in the Seychelles and Polynesian islands, giving our students unique opportunities to undertake original research and contribute to conservation in amazing places. A research programme for Peterhouse students in Greece is being developed at the moment. We also have good links to cellular and molecular biology laboratories, and many of our students gain vacation experience in labs in Cambridge and around the world.

The college has been associated with notable biologists for 300 years and is today linked to leading research in the most crucial biological fields. The colleges' early biologists were part of an important group of 18th and 19th century naturalists, several associated with Charles Darwin in his beetle-collecting forays as an undergraduate at Cambridge.

In the 20th century the college was particularly strong in molecular biology, with some of the most exceptional biologists of the time being its Directors of Studies in Natural Sciences: John Kendrew (1950-56, Nobel prize 1962), Leslie Orgel (1957-64) and Aaron Klug (1962-94, Nobel prize 1982).

Students' achievements

Typically we admit 5-8 biologists each year. We support them to develop their interests and to make the most of their time with us. Over half of our students move onto further degrees, others use their degrees in many different ways or move into completely different fields. In the last few years some of their undergraduate research projects and internships have led to publications, one published on human developmental genetics and others in press or submitted, covering very different fields. Some students have also set up their own science communication blogs and Youtube channels.


Although Peterhouse is a small college in terms of numbers of students and Fellows, in recent years its Natural Sciences teaching has become particularly strong. The college is now regularly one of the highest ranking colleges for Natural Sciences. At Peterhouse supervising of first year courses is carried out by Fellows, or by very experienced external supervisors. This gives students more support than is possible in larger colleges. In addition, Peterhouse makes a speciality of scientific writing, developing its biologists into the best science writers through their essays in the first year.

Research opportunities

Peterhouse biology students have exceptional opportunities to participate in research projects, from tropical island ecology projects to laboratory placements. Many students use the summer vacations and the college's generous travel grants to gain research experience. We have good links to laboratory and field researchers in Cambridge and elsewhere, and some unique field research opportunities. This has enabled our students to study everything from microbiology through to geological mapping, giant tortoises and tropical islands. Some of these activities are mentioned in the Peterhouse Biology Newsletter.

Biology events

Peterhouse has an active scientific society, the Kelvin Club with talks from notable speakers three-times a term. There are also subject related social events throughout the year, with the annual NatSci Dinner being a highlight.

An annual Peterhouse Biology Symposium was started in 2020. At this Peterhouse biologists, from undergraduates to Fellows, give brief presentations on their research, enabling us to learn what everyone is doing and to swap ideas and inspiration.

In the Michaelmas term fortnightly evening discussion meetings are held. These were started during the pandemic as a way of enabling students to meet and to compensate for the limited interactions that were possible at the time. They proved to be very popular and so have been continued. In a social setting we introduce topics not otherwise covered in the course, and discuss themes such as research and the publication process.

Biologists may be interested in the termly survey of the wildlife of the college's gardens (PetWild). While the Deer Park no long has any deer, it is an impressively diverse place considering it is so close to the centre of Cambridge.

Other information

Applications: Information for potential applicants.

Courses: Information on choosing 1A courses.

Examples of biological topics covered in first year biology supervisions at Peterhouse:

Natural selection: what's special about the Galapagos; why squid see better than we do; why Darwin was right but Lamarck was not entirely wrong.

Transport: how we use electric potential to move substances across membranes; how this enables some fish to move between rivers and sea.

Kin and sexual selection: evolution of helping; why sex evolved; why two sexes; why it's not all female choice and male display.

Nerve function: squid giant nerves; did comb jellies evolve nerves or sponges lose them?

Population genetics and speciation: why there are just 10,000 people (genetically speaking); why the Y-chromosome is deteriorating; whether species really exist and how ligers and tigons are possible.

Homeostasis: even microbes want to be comfortable.

Natural selection vs drift: random changes in the genome and neutral theory; the meaning of mutations and why they are not really random at all.

Movement: from rotating proteins to sliding chains; the ballistic tongue of lungless salamanders.

Origins of life and mitochondria: the RNA world and creating life in the laboratory; origins of mitochondria and chloroplasts, and how bacteria invented for Star Wars turn out to be real and to have a very dark side.

Evolution of the heart; the tinman gene, balloons and chambers.

Plant evolution: the origins of plants and the colonisation of land; how this process was driven by fungi.

Osmoregulation: why so many ways to balance water?

Rise of flowers: why weird sexual practices enable plants to colonise deserts.

Oxygen uptake: how to cope with the greatest toxin and what to do with it.

Gene duplication: how this leads to complexity, and to flowering plants having both beautiful flowers and vile poisons.

Nutrition: how to make a living out of other organisms.

Animal origins: evolution of multicellularity, what exactly are comb jellies?

Energy: the Goldilocks dilemma - why you don't want to be too small or too large.

Arthropods & Chordates: how genetics and development are revolutionising our understanding of the most complex animals.

Plant physiology: how they sense what is around them.

Plasticity: changing your appearance to fit in a changing world.

Plants: miracle chemistry - how to make energy out of light and water.

Adaptive radiations: great species swarms and how this relates to plasticity.

Underground physiology: what happens when plants invade the fungal world.

Phenotypic gambit: size isn't everything - why beetles have to choose between horns or large testes.

Plant hormones: how plants talk to one another, and what they say.

Conditioning: Pavlov's dogs and Skinner's rats.

Microbes: bacterial growth.

Imprinting & song learning: learning in birds and how cuckoos subvert the system.

Microbes: what happens when fungi invade the light, and how plants retaliate.

Memory: how remembering the past is the key to predicting the future.

Microbes: balancing between health and disease.

Primates: from tree shrews to human origins. Bipedal apes and why most of us are at least a bit Neanderthal, and are we still evolving?

Comparative physiology: how size and shape affect fluid transport. How giraffes and redwoods stand tall; and how did those enormous dinosaurs work?

Sensing: coping with light and electricity, seeing in colour and hearing.


Justin Gerlach by e-mail