Research interests

  • Host-pathogen co-evolution
  • Virus evolution
  • MHC and sexual selection
  • Evolutionary genetics of invasive species
  • Evolution of host disease resistance and virulence
  • Population genetics
  • Microbiome ecology

Scientific projects

Pathogens like viruses are important selective agents shaping the evolution and genomic structure of their hosts. But also hosts influence the evolution of their viruses, and host population structure and genetic diversity, for example through habitat fragmentation or anthropogenic disturbances, may influence the adaptive processes of viruses. Further potential factors may influence in the evolution of host and virus genomes, and among them the microbiome and intestinal parasites. I am interested in learning more about the complex interplay of these ecological and environmental factors in natural populations. 

One study project uses data from the Panama Canal region to investigate how habitat disturbance and genetic diversity (genome-wide SNPs), parasite diversity, mammal species diversity and microbiome diversity interact and influence each other and shape populations on several taxonomic levels. Here we use spatial redundancy analyses and structural equation modelling to disentangle the forces shaping genetic and species diversity.

I am also interested in co-evolutionary processes between European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) in Australia. In this project we use virus sequencing, genome-wide SNPs of rabbits and population genetic analyses to investigate long-term molecular genetic adaptive processes in biocontrol of one of the world’s most damaging invasive species.

The genes of the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) are important components for immune reactions, and suitable markers for studying pathogen-driven selection. Therefore I am also interested in MHC evolution and diversity in bottlenecked populations as found in invasive rabbits in Australia but also in endangered species such as the cheetahs. In the Panama project, we investigate which role MHC diversity has with respect of virus diversity in geographically widely distributed bats. 

My research was supported by the DFG Priority Program ‘Host-Parasite Coevolution – Rapid reciprocal adaptation and its genetic basis’ (SPP 1399, DFG Sommer SO 428/7-1) and is currently funded by the DFG Priority Program SPP 1596/2 Ecology and species barriers in emerging infectious diseases (Sommer SO 428/ 9-1, 9-2).


Schwensow, N., Pederson, S., Peacock, D., Cooke, B. and Cassey, P. (2020), Adaptive changes in the genomes of wild rabbits after 16 years of viral epidemics. Mol Ecol. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1111/mec.15498

Schwensow N, Castro-Prieto A, Wachter B, Sommer S (2019) Immunological MHC supertypes and allelic expression: how low is the functional MHC variability in wild endangered Namibian cheetahs? Conservation Genetics, 20: 65:80.

Qurkhuli T, Schwensow N, Brändel SD, Tschapka M, Sommer S (2019) Can extreme MHC class I diversity be a feature of a wide geographic range? The example of Seba’s short-tailed bat (Carollia perspicillata). Immunogenetics, 71, 575.

Iannella, A., Peacock, D., Cassey, P., Schwensow, N. (2018). Genetic perspectives on the historical introduction of the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) to Australia. Biological Invasions. doi:10.1007/s10530-018-1849-2

Wells, K., Fordham, D. A., Brook, B. W., Cassey, P., Cox, T., O'Hara, R. B., Schwensow, N. I. (2018). Disentangling synergistic disease dynamics: Implications for the viral biocontrol of rabbits. Journal of Animal Ecology, 00, 1-11.

Schwensow, N., C. J. Mazzoni, E. Marmesat, J. Fickel, D. Peacock, J. Kovaliski, R. Sinclair, P. Cassey, B. Cooke & S. Sommer (2017) High adaptive variability and virus-driven selection on major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes in invasive wild rabbits in Australia. Biological Invasions, 19, 1255-1271.

Schwensow, N., H. Detering, S. Pederson, C. Mazzoni, R. Sinclair, D. Peacock, J. Kovaliski, B. Cooke, J. Fickel & S. Sommer (2017) Resistance to RHD virus in wild Australian rabbits: comparison of susceptible and resistant individuals using a genome-wide approach. Molecular Ecology, 26: 4551-4561.

Pearson, S. K., S. S. Godfrey, N. Schwensow, C. M. Bull & M. G. Gardner; (2017) Genes and group membership predict gidgee skink (Egernia stokesii) reproductive pairs. Journal of Heredity, 108: 369-378.

Wells, K., B. W. Brook, R. C. Lacy, G. J. Mutze, D. E. Peacock, R. G. Sinclair, N. Schwensow, P. Cassey, R. B. O'Hara & D. A. Fordham (2015) Timing and severity of immunizing diseases in rabbits is controlled by seasonal matching of host and pathogen dynamics. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 12.

Schwensow, N., B. Cooke, J. Kovaliski, R. Sinclair, D. Peacock, J. Fickel & S. Sommer (2014) Rabbit haemorrhagic disease: virus persistence and adaptation in Australia. Evolutionary Applications, 7, 1056-1067.

Schwensow, N., B. Cooke, J. Fickel, W. Lutz & S. Sommer (2012) Changes in liver gene expression indicate genetic pathways associated with rabbit haemorrhagic disease infection in wild rabbits. The Open Immunology Journal, 5, 20-26.

Schwensow, N., J. Axtner & S. Sommer (2011) Are associations of immune gene expression, body condition and parasite burden detectable in nature? A case study in an endemic rodent from the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Infection, Genetics and Evolution, 11, 23-30.

Schwensow, N., K. Dausmann, M. Eberle, J. Fietz & S. Sommer (2010) Functional associations of similar MHC alleles and shared parasite species in two sympatric lemurs. Infection, Genetics and Evolution, 10, 662-668.

Schwensow, N., M. Eberle & S. Sommer (2010) Are there Ubiquitous Parasite-driven Major Histocompatibility Complex Selection Mechanisms in Gray Mouse Lemurs? International Journal of Primatology, 31, 519-537.

Schwensow, N., M. Eberle & S. Sommer (2008) Compatibility counts: MHC-associated mate choice in a wild promiscuous primate. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 275, 555- 564.

Schwensow, N., J. Fietz, K. Dausmann & S. Sommer (2008) MHC-associated mating strategies and the importance of overall genetic diversity in an obligate pair-living primate. Evolutionary Ecology, 22, 617-363.

Schwensow, N., J. Fietz, K. Dausmann & S. Sommer (2007) Neutral versus adaptive variation in parasite resistance: importance of MHC-supertypes in a free-ranging primate. Heredity, 99, 265-277.


    Dr. Nina Schwensow
    Institute of Evolutionary Ecology
    and Conservation Genomics
    University of Ulm
    Albert-Einstein-Allee 11
    89081 Ulm
    Tel: 0731 - 50 22 688
    Email: nina.schwensow ()