Maude Baldwin joins as new director

Eighth department at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence will investigate the evolution of sensory and physiological systems 

March 27, 2024

Since 2015, Maude Baldwin has been leading the Max Planck Research Group ‘Evolution of Sensory Systems’ at the Seewiesen location of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence. Baldwin has now been appointed by the Max Planck Society as the Institute's first female director. Her department, the ‘Evolution of sensory and physiological systems’ department, is the Institute’s eighth, and will start in spring 2024. Baldwin’s research is on the evolution of diverse sensory and physiological systems, including the sense of taste in vertebrates. 

Maude Baldwin completed her PhD in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University in 2015, after which she started as a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, now a part of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence. Her department will focus on the evolution of sensory and physiological systems, with an emphasis on the taste and digestive systems in different vertebrates, including birds, non-avian reptiles, and fish. 

"We are very pleased to have Maude Baldwin, a particularly dedicated and outstanding young scientist, as our eighth -- and first female -- director. Her research will contribute significantly to our Institute’s mission: unraveling the multifaceted topic of biological intelligence," said Manfred Gahr, managing director of the Institute, about Baldwin’s appointment. 

Baldwin's research focuses on the evolution of taste sensing and digestive physiology across the vertebrate phylogeny. For example, she and her team found that, although birds lost their receptor for sweet perception during evolution, hummingbirds, songbirds, and woodpeckers are able to taste sweetness through a repurposed receptor for savory (umami). Wrynecks (an ant-specialist woodpecker), however, have lost this ability to taste sweet for a second time during their evolutionary history.  

With the expansion of the research group into a department, Baldwin and her team have the opportunity to study in depth the causes and consequences of evolutionary changes in sensory perception. They are taking an integrative approach that combines molecular methods with cell culture techniques and behavioral observations. "Our team is looking forward to expanding our research to address questions such as how diverse evolutionary histories and ecologies affect animal physiology and sensory biology, and to investigate the relative timing of changes in these different systems, and how they may coevolve," Baldwin says. "We hope our department will make important contributions to understanding key changes in vertebrate evolutionary history." 

Text: Magdalena Warner

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