Selected topics in evolutionary biology

Hi! Welcome to our correspondence seminar, Selected Topics in Evolutionary Biology (STEB)!

Have you ever wondered about the diversity of living organisms? Have you thought about differences between humans and chimapanzees, and how these differences came ro existence? Do you think that individual's DNA sequence help predict their risk of diabetes or cancer? Or are you fascinated by viruses?

In this correspondence seminar, we will try to answer these and other questions using evolutionary biology. We hope that this evolutionary perspective will not only be interesting to you, but will also help you appreciate the ‘why’ and not just the ‘how’ in your biology classes, helping you learn what you need in an easy way.

Register here!

What is STEB?

STEB is a correspondence seminar—a competition in solving interesting problems in biology for high school students like you. It consists of five rounds or “issues”. Each contains a short (and hopefully) interesting article, a few questions for you to answer and a small project for you to carry out at home.

By answering the questions and completing the small projects, you can participate in a competition and win interesting prizes, as well as be invited to a top new science institute in Austria. You will meet other Slovak and Austrian students interested in evolution and learn more about exciting research questions that scientists are working on right now.

Why should I participate?

If you want to understand the living world around you a bit better, you can learn a lot by looking at it from an evolutionary perspective. By reading the articles, you will see that many living things around (and including!) you have a far more fascinating backstory than you ever imagined. By participating in the competition, you will develop problem-solving skills that will be extremely useful at university, as well as the ability to write your thoughts clearly and explain your ideas and opinions.

The most successful students will receive prizes and will be invited to the Institute of Science and Technology Austria for a short visit (remember that this is just the first year of the seminar, so there may not be very many competitors). We plan to invite the ten best students from Slovakia and the ten best from Austria to this visit.

How can I participate?

It’s easy! Just register here and we will send you all six series by post or by email, whichever you prefer. You read the article, answer the questions and carry out the project at home whenever works best for you, then send us your responses and results before the deadline for each series. We will correct them and send you our feedback together with the next series.

This seminar will take place simultaneously in Slovakia, Austria, and part of Germany. You can choose which language you prefer to respond in: German, Slovak, or English. Read the rules below carefully for more details.

You can submit your answers and the project write-up electronically, by sending it to

1), if you are from Slovakia

2) if you are from Austria

3) if you are from Germany.


  • You can write in English, Slovak, Czech or German. Even Hindi if you really want to! We are very flexible. :-)
  • Pay attention to the deadline for each series. Send your write-up on time! You will lose 1 point for every day it is late. After 10 days, we will no longer correct your answers. As a time of submission we consider the date when your email was sent, or your letter postmarked.
  • You can use any books, articles or other material you find helpful in answering the questions and solving the problems. However, make sure you use your own words to explain the solution!
  • Remember that you compete alone. Do not share your results with anyone else competing in this competition! If your solutions are too similar, both of you will lose points!
  • You can get up to 20 points for your answers to each round. We will evaluate the quality of your solutions, as well as the project write-up, so make sure you explain clearly what you do!
  • You are expected to send us not only the solution/results of the task but also the methodology you followed or a description of the experiment. Each project will come with a set of instructions explaining exactly what we expect from you.
  • By participating in this competition you agree that your name, school and score will appear in the Results Table.


  • Pay attention to points that you can get for each question, as not all of them were created equal!
  • Even if you don't know the exact solution or your experiment does not come out the way you hoped, send us what you have, as well as your ideas, opinions or the problems you encountered. Some points are better than none!
  • If you feel you deserve more points than you were awarded, let us know. We are all human and make mistakes. Maybe we misunderstood your response or missed something. Just let us know (in detail) what you think the problem was.
  • If you don't understand the questions or the problem, you can always ask! It is possible we did not write something clearly enough, and others have exactly the same questions!
  • Do not PANIC! If the problem seems too hard, it is likely hard for everyone. Plus, re-reading the article, checking out recommended material or a bit of googling can help you tremendously! And remember, you don't need to get the full points to do well.

Year 2 (2018-2019)

Series 1: DNA

Deoxyribonucleic acid, double helix, the molecule of life, the recipe for all life… these are just a few names for this special molecule. We no longer see DNA just as a molecule - it has become the icon of the modern biology and medicine. Discovering its structure and functions entirely changed how we think about life and nature in general.

DNA stores information about us, passing it from parents to offspring, from generation to generation. Thanks to DNA found across the realm of life scientists claim that all living organisms have a single, common origin. So how is it possible, that we observe an amazing diversity of organisms around us?

First series is now online!

You can find it here.

Please answer the questions using the online form here.


Series 2: Genetics of diseases

In this series, we will look at DNA errors in greater detail. We will talk about genetic diseases, and their origin. Is it actually possible to treat them?

The second series is now online!

You can find it here.

Please answer the questions using the online form here.


Series 3: A glimpse into the world of viruses

When you think of viruses, you probably think of diseases: influenza, measles, HIV, and many more. But this is just a tiny part of the world of viruses. Viruses are ubiquituous. They do not only infect humans but all forms of life including bacteria and play an important role in many ecosystems. Viruses cannot live and reproduce on their own but depend on the machinerie of the host cell. Some people therefore say that viruses exist "at the edge of life". Some types of virus integrate into the genome of the host. In our human genome, we have fossil viruses that have colonized human cells a long time ago and are now part of our DNA.

In this issue, you will learn about the (pseudo-)life of viruses and some viral diseases, get to know a virus that infects a bacterium that makes us sick with the help of the viral genes, and finally you will see how viruses can also be useful to us.

Series 4: Branches and nodes in the tree of life: how new species arise

You have probably marvelled at the diversity of life forms around you and wondered how it arose. In the final chapter of the series, we will delve into this "mystery of mysteries" that perplexed Darwin 150 years ago and ask: What are species and why do they exist? Do populations need to be separated by mountain ranges and oceans in order to evolve into separate species? Or can intermixing populations that occupy the same habitat also diversify and become different species? What kind of genetic changes are required for speciation? Can the mechanisms that split a population into two species ultimately generate the amazing diversity of life forms on the planet and explain the tree of life? While a lot has been discovered about the "origin of species" since Darwin's time, many of these questions continue to be active areas of scientific enquiry even today!

Series 5: The causes and consequences of sex differences

We guess you have already noticed some differences between males and females, but have you ever wondered where they come from? Darwin did, and started a discussion about the biological reasons of sexual dimorphism that is still ongoing nowadays. In this series, we will discuss what makes a male a male, and a female a female, and the implications of both having different reproductive interests in the evolution of the differences between them.

Year 1 (2017-2018)

Have you ever wondered why there are men and women but no female or male slugs? Do you want to know why people help each other, whether Adam and Eve actually existed, or why it is important to take all those antibiotics doses you were prescribed? Have you ever marvelled at the amazing diversity and complexity of living organisms around you and wondered how it arose?

In the first year of the STEB seminar, we looked exactly at these questions.

In 2017/2018, more than 100 students, from more than 50 schools, 3 teachers and 1 father participated in the competition.

Final results of the competition

The names of the first 25 students, ivitet to IST Austria, are now published.


Funding and acknowledgement

This seminar is supported by the European Society for Evolutionary Biology (ESEB) Outreach Initiative Fund and IST Austria.

Furthermore, authors of the seminar have received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 704172 (RACE).