In 1946, CNRS started looking for somewhere, in quiet surroundings, not too far from Paris and easily accessible by public transport, to set up its research laboratories. The château of Gif-sur-Yvette seemed ideal. Frédéric Joliot-Curie, then head of the newly created CNRS, knew the owner, physicist Jacques Noetzlin, as they had both attended the physics courses given by Jean Perrin. Jacques Noetzlin was willing to sell and. on 3 June 1946, CNRS bought the château and the 67 hectare estate. The first three laboratories set up on the campus were life science laboratories, specializing in genetics, even though genetics had not yet become an established university subject.
The first laboratory to open at Gif was that of Philippe L’Héritier in 1951: it specialized in formal genetics and studied the heritability of virally induced CO2 sensitivity in drosophila. The next laboratory to be established was that of Georges Tessier. This was the CNRS laboratory, originally called the Laboratory of Evolutionary Genetics and Biometry, which specialized in population genetics. However, this laboratory did not become active until Charles Bocquet took over in 1966. Under his direction, the laboratory began to study natural populations and speciation, using two model organisms, a jaera (marine crustacean) and a drosophila (fruit fly). Jean David then became director (1980-1992) and extended the scope of study to bees and drosophila parasites (transposable elements and parasitoid insects) and new themes. Jean-Marc Jallon’s department was created in LEGS in 1985 to work on cuticular hydrocarbons and sexual recognition in drosophila, and moved to Orsay University in 1989. Since then, new techniques have enabled the approach to be oriented towards molecular genetics. The CNRS laboratory was renamed “Populations, Genetics, Evolution” in 1993 and, under the direction of Marie-Louise Cariou (1993-2005), it has become one of the leading laboratories for evolutionary research.
The laboratory has worked closely with other institutes. It hosted an INRA group (Jean-Yves Rasplus) from 1993 until it moved to Montpellier in 1998. In 2001, Jean-François Silvain created the IRD research unit (UR072) within the laboratory to provide synergy with applied research. This unit works with African and South American countries on the relationship between plants, phytophages and parasitoids in tropical environments. This work, based on the study of interactions between species in the environment, deepened the laboratory’s understanding of adaptation mechanisms and differentiation of populations, particularly African, a field in which it had been particularly involved since its creation.
The laboratory has adopted a policy of expanding themes and techniques. Over the past ten years, it has encouraged young scientists who enrich and broaden the fields of competence. In 2002, the Evo-Devo unit (Didier Casane, ATIPE and ATIPE plus CNRS) was set up, using zebra fish and dogfish as model organisms, to study the genetic and functional evolution of multigene families. More recently, the arrival of Frédéric Méry (2005, ATIPE, ERC Young Scientist) stimulated research into the cognitive abilities of drosophila. In 2006, the laboratory changed its name to the Evolution, Genomes and Speciation Laboratory under the direction of Pierre Capy, professor at Paris South University. In 2010, he was reappointed head of the laboratory for a further 4 years and he will be expanding the scope of the Laboratory into theoretical biology with the arrival of Arnaud Le Rouzic (2009, European Reintegration Grant).
Structural evolution of the laboratory
The association with IRD has been very rewarding. Since its creation, the UR072 unit has been supported by IRD’s management, with IRD providing both human and financial resources. This has made it possible for the IRD and CNRS to share the purchase of sequencing and other molecular genetics equipment. At scientific level, interaction and collaboration are effective, as can be seen by joint projects such as publications and organization of conferences. Collaboration will increase on convergent themes such as biological invasions for which outline plans have already been made. The IRD group is based in Gif-sur-Yvette but it has facilities abroad (in Kenya, Ecuador, Cameroon, etc), which make it easier for scientists to carry out field studies.
In 2006, 12 scientists and lecturers joined the LEGS: C. Wicker (CNRS), J. Rouault (CNRS), J. Filée (CNRS), J. C. Sandoz (CNRS), F. Méry (CNRS), A Le Rouzic (CNRS), M. Harry (professor at Paris South University), L. Kaiser (INRA), P.A. Calatayud (IRD), B. Le Ru (IRD), O. Dangles (IRD), R. Pasquet (IRD). The LEGS now has a staff of 21 scientists (CNRS, IRD, INRA) and 9 lecturers.
Stronger university links
Links with universities , in particular with the Paris South University, have been strengthened over recent years. This has resulted in an increase in the number of lecturers at LEGS to 9. They are based in various universities: Paris South 11, Paris 7, Paris 6 and Versailles-Saint-Quentin. LEGS lecturers are taking on more responsibilities in the various University bodies, such as the PhD schools, and in return the scientists are increasing their teaching efforts.
LEGS participated in the reorganization of the evolutionary scientists on the campuses of Gif and Orsay leading to the creation of the Institut Diversité et Evolution du Vivant (IDEV). IDEV was set up on 1 January 2010, bringing together four laboratories and several groups from the Gif and Orsay campuses and INRA.