Matthew Cobb, BA, Habilitation, PhD


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Personal profile


I did a BA in Psychology at the University of Sheffield, and went on to do my PhD there, in Psychology and Genetics, looking at the mating behaviour of seven species of fruitfly. Psychology in those days was as much about animal behaviour as it was about human psychology, and I was lucky enough to be in one of the few places in the UK that studied Drosophila behaviour genetics. I decided to make this my research subject when I was a second year undergraduate, having read an article in New Scientist about the recent discovery of the first learning mutant, dunce.

My first postdoctoral position (1981-1984) was at the Institute of Psychiatry, in London, where I spent my time getting twins drunk. This was interesting, but convinced me that I did not want to do research on human beings.

At the time, UK science was experiencing some interesting times under the Thatcher government, and it was easier to find work abroad than here. In the middle of the great Miners' Strike (1984), I moved to France on a Royal Society Science Exchange Programme. I worked at Gif-sur-Yvette, just south of Paris, with Jean-Marc Jallon and was introduced to chemical communication - the study of how animals communicate with each other using their sense of smell and pheromones. One of Jean-Marc's students, Jean-François Ferveur, became a close friend, and we are still collaborating to this day.

After the end of my Royal Society grant I was a lecturer in Pyschophysiology at the Université Paris-XIII (Villetaneuse) for 18 months, and then was recruited to the French CNRS (1988). I remained in the CNRS, working first in Orsay, then in Paris, until 2002. During this time I began my work on the sense of smell, using Drosophila maggots as my model organism. From 1995-2002 I studied chemical communication in ants, working at the Laboratoire d'Ecologie in Paris.

In 2002 I returned to the UK to take up a post as lecturer at the University of Manchester.

While in Paris I began my work on the history of science, with the encouragement of various historians I met, including Jean Gayon and Michel Morange, whose books I have translated.

In 2002, I returned to the UK, to take up my post here. In 2007 I was named FLS Teacher of the Year and received the University's award for Teaching Excellence.

In 2006 I published The Egg & Sperm Race: The Seventeenth Century Scientists who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth, and in 2008 the Zoological Society of London gave me an award for Communicating Science.

In 2009 the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation gave me their Translation Prize, jointly with Malcom DeBevoise, for our translation of Michel Morange's book Life Explained.

In 2009 I published The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis, a book about the French Resistance in WW2, which won the Anglo-French Society Award, and in 2013 I published Eleven Days in August: The Liberation of Paris, August 1944.

In 2015 I recently published Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code (Profile Books in the UK; Basic Books in the US), which was shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Book Prize.

I have just finished writing a book on the history of our ideas about brain and behaviour, also for Profile Books and have begun writing a book for OUP's Very Short Introduction series, on smell.


I teach on the following units: Genes, Evolution and Development, A History of Biology in 20 Objects, Animal Diversity, Advances in Behavioural Ecology and Chemical Communication in Animals.

First Year: I teach about evolution in the "Genes, Evolution and Development" and about 17th and 20th century science in "A History of Biology in 20 Objects"

Second Year: I teach about invertebrate evolution in "Animal Diversity"

Final Year: I am unit coordinator and principal lecturer in "Chemical Communication in Animals" and teach on predation, communication, morality and consciousness in "Evolution of Animal Behaviour"

Research interests

I study how the sense of smell works, using maggots. You and me have about 4 million smell cells in our noses. A maggot has just 21, and by using genetics we can make a maggot with just a single smell cell. By studying these animals and the electrical activity of their smell cells, we can understand how smells are processed. The bits of the maggot brain that process smells are wired up just like ours - by studying a simple maggot we hope to understand how the sense of smell works in all animals, including humans. With collaborators in America I have looked at how human populations vary for the genes that enable us to smell. We studied one particular gene in over 2000 indigenous people and showed that it is the focus of natural selection. We also looked at this gene in extinct human populations (Neanderthals, Denisovans) and were able to understand how they would have perceived certain odours.

PS If you are looking for someone who studies the history of the French Resistance in WW2, you have indeed come to the right place. Send me an e-mail.

Behaviour genetics, olfaction, chemical communication and the history of science

I study behaviour, communication and perception and the way in which they are shaped by genes, environment and their interaction.

Most of my research has focused on insect behaviour and its evolutionary and genetic bases, in particular on genetic and developmental factors involved in chemical communication - olfaction and pheromones.

My olfaction research focuses on the nature of olfactory coding, its relation to the evolution and ecology of a given organism, and its underlying genetic and neurological basis. My current model is theDrosophila larva - the maggot has only 21 olfactory receptor neurons, but is capable of detecting over 60 odours. I am particularly interested in comparative studies of chemical communication and its evolution, and have also made comparative studies of the neurogenetics of larval olfaction in Tribolium castaneum.

I am interested in courtship behaviour in a wide range of Drosophila species, in particular the role of pheromones in inter- and intra-specific behaviour, and the genetic bases of pheromone production and detection.

Together with Dr Kara Hoover of the University of Alaska, I have recently branched out into human olfaction. We studied the evolution of a particular gene coding for an olfactory receptor, and were able to reconstruct this part of the nose of an extinct group of humans called the Denisovans and explore how they were able to smell. You can find the article here.

I also study the history of science, in particular the history of genetics/reproduction, focussing on the 17th century and the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in two popular science books, The Egg and Sperm Race and Life's Greatest Secret.

My collaborations

  • Jean-Francois Ferveur (Dijon) - Drosophila chemical communication and the evolution of courtship behaviour. This Royal Society funded project involves a series of exchanges between our labs, and is set up to include undergraduates. 
  • Kara Hoover (Alaska) - Evolution of human olfactory genes, including in extinct populations (Neanderthals, Denisovans).


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