H.M. The King's gold medal awarded to PhD from IBV

Jo Skeie Hermansen is honoured with prestigious award for his doctoral dissertation at IBV/CEES.

Jo Skeie Hermansen is awarded H.M. The King's gold medal for his doctoral thesis on speciation by hybridization in Passer sparrows.

It is confirmed that H. M. The King's gold medal for 2015 will be awarded Jo Skeie Hermansen from IBV and CEES for his doctoral dissertation at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences.

Hermansen defended his thesis 'A fruitful affair: speciation by hybridization in Passer sparrows' in February 2015. His dissertation and trial lecture (title: 'The role of hybridization in evolution') received outstanding reviews from the assessment committee.

Hermansen's supervisor during his PhD period, Professor Glenn-Peter Sætre, says that Hermansen shows a great potential for doing research at the highest international level, and in addition highlights his former student's ability to view his work in a historical context.


H.M. The King's gold medal is annually awarded to excellent, young researchers for scientific work published and evaluated at The University of Oslo. The formal handover will coincide with the annual anniversary celebration at The University of Oslo, September 2nd.

Previous winners at IBV

This is the fifth dissertation at to be awarded a gold medal at the department. Previous winners are:

  • Trude Vrålstad - 2002 (currently at IBV/MERG)
  • Eli Knipsel Rueness - 2004 (IBV/CEES)
  • Anne Maria Eikeset - 2011 (IBV/CEES)
  • Kjetil Lysne Voje - 2013 (IBV/CEES)

Popularised summary of Hermansen's dissertation

With his doctoral work, Jo Skeie Hermansen has shed important light on the origin of species – a fundamental problem in biology once deemed no less than the “the mystery of mysteries”. Hermansen and his colleagues have demonstrated that the world’s most widespread bird species, the ubiquitous house sparrow, is at the centre of a poorly understood, but potentially vital generator of biological diversity – hybrid speciation.

Usually when different species interbreed, the offspring are infertile or inviable. A well-known example of this is the mule where genes from the horse and the donkey are unable to cooperate to produce a fertile animal, that is, their genes are incompatible. Yet, Hermansen and colleagues have shown that the house sparrow has interbred with its evolutionary cousin the Spanish sparrow, to form a third distinct species, the Italian sparrow, which phenotypically and genetically is a mosaic of its parent species. Crucially, by means of genetic analyses Hermansen and colleagues have unveiled how the hybrid Italian sparrow remains a distinct species while in contact with its parent species – that is, how reproductive barriers have developed in this system.

The elegant solution nature has come up with is the sorting of preexisting genetic incompatibilities. In short, a subset of the incompatibilities that separate the parent species from each other has become sorted in the hybrid genome in such a way that they act as reproductive barriers against the house sparrow, while another subset is acting as reproductive barriers against the Spanish sparrow. The work of Hermansen and colleagues has thus contributed to solving the paradox of hybrid speciation – that gene flow must occur between the parent species for the hybrid to form, but that there must also be some degree of reproductive isolation for the hybrid species to remain distinct from its parents.

Hybridization is not some curiosity of nature, but a process currently receiving great attention in evolutionary biology. Aided by novel sequencing technologies researchers are discovering that a vast number of sexually reproducing groups of organisms previously thought to be good species exhibit signals of hybridization, and that the level of gene exchange in natural systems is much higher than previously appreciated. Even our own species has been shown to harbor a complex evolutionary history involving several admixture events with archaic humans, including the Neanderthals whose genetic material some of us still carry with us today. Hence, the work of Hermansen and colleagues has general and wide-ranging implications for our understanding of biological diversification – a defining characteristic of life on earth.

Hermansen’s work has been widely covered by international and national media, including Science, BBC, NPR, and NRK – both in written form, on radio and on television.

Published Oct. 14, 2015 9:38 AM - Last modified Oct. 14, 2016 9:41 AM