Philippe Helsen

Research Coordinator Conservation Genetics

Research themes:

  • Conservation
  • Population genetics
  • Evolutionary biology
  • Population modelling


As a postdoc at the Centre for Research and Conservation from Antwerp ZOO and Planckendael ZOO I’m primarily in charge of the genetics lab where we use different DNA methods to understand and ultimately conserve species. Meanwhile I evaluate the effect of new genomic insights in ex-situ population management using computer simulations. As scientific advisor of the Eurasian Black vulture breeding programme I support Marleen Huyghe, curator of birds at Antwerp ZOO and Planckendael ZOO in the management of this population.

Extra activities

  • Within the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) I am member of EPMAG and BIOBANKING working group.
  • Affiliated professor Ghent University – Conservation genetics     
  • Associate researcher University of Antwerp
  • Board member Royal Belgian Society for Zoology
  • Scientific advisory board Arboretum Kalmthout
  • Co-organizer Masterday in Biology
  • Scientific Advisor Eurasian Black Vulture EEP

Research Interests

Most of my research centres around genetic variation (the prerequisite for evolutionary responses): its origin, reorganization, impact and maintenance in natural and ex-situ populations in an applied conservation context. I currently focus on unravelling how traditional genetics and genomics can enhance the success and sustainability of both in- andex-situ breeding programmes. As such I am particularly interested in: (i)resolving taxonomical uncertainties,(ii) genetic characterization and conservation of wild populations, (iii) the genetics behind reintroductions (iv) quantitative genetics and (v) short term adaptive processes.

Brief Biography

After finishing my masters in Biology at the University of Antwerp (major: Evolution, organisms and populations) I started my PhD on micro- and macro-evolutionary processes within giant Opuntia cacti and their insect herbivores on Galápagos (2004-2008). Using genetics I described: phylogenetic patterns, fine-scale population genetic structures, host herbivore interactions and their implications on conservation. At the same time I became interested in potential links between genetics and developmental biology: can we use left right asymmetry as a proxy for genetic fitness of individuals or populations? During and after my PhD I taught and assisted in several biology courses and supplied genetic consulting and assistance for several bachelor, master and PhD projects.

Later I enrolled in studies on morphological variability, adaptation and hybridization in cichlids and speciation within African rats and mice (Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences - Belgium)

In my current position I have a strong connection with the Centre for Research and Conservation’smolecular lab of Antwerp ZOO and Planckendael ZOO, a vivid environment were many different worlds meet (from wild populations over museum collections towards the ex-situ population or from single marker diagnostics to genomics). It’s this combination that enables us to tackle research questions that balance between pure fundamental and more applied research. Part of my current work involves translating new scientific insights to the broader public.

Working within the Zoo community creates interesting opportunities in analysing unique datasets from oftentimes largely unknown species that are under threat in the wild. What can we learn from these carefully managed and recorded populations in terms of e.g. outbreeding depression, fate of unique lineages [PH1]  or even social group interactions. Do we make optimal use of the current genetic diversity found within our populations or can we do better when using alternative breeding strategies?

Key Publications

de Groot NG, Heijmans CMC, Helsen P, Otting N, Pereboom Z, Stevens JMG, Bontrop RE (2017). Limited MHC class I intron 2 repertoire variation in bonobos. Immunogenetics

Laudisoit  A,  Collet  M,  Muyaya  B5,  Mauwa C, Ntadi  S,  Wendelen  W, Guiet  A,  Helsen  P,  Baudouin  M,    Leirs  H,  Vanhoutte N, Micha JC, Verheyen E (2017) West African Manatee Trichechus senegalensis (LINK, 1795) in the Estuary of the Congo River (Democratic Republic of the Congo): Review and Update. Journal of Biodiversity and Endangered species

Helsen P, Van Dongen S (2016) Associations between Floral Asymmetry and Individual Genetic Variability Differ among Three Prickly Pear (Opuntia echios) Populations. Symmetry

Staes N, Weiss A, Helsen P, Korody M, Eens M, Stevens JM (2016) Bonobo personality traits are heritable and associated with vasopressin receptor gene 1a variation. Scientific Reports

Bruford MW , Ginja C, Hoffmann I, Joost S, Orozco-terWengel P, Alberto F, Amaral A, Barbato Mario, Biscarini F, Colli L, Costa M, Curik I, Duruz S, Ferencakovic M, Fischer D, Fitak R, Groeneveld L F, Hall S, Hanotte OH, Hassan F, Helsen P, Iacolina L, Kantanen J, Leempoel K, Lenstra JA, Ajmone MP, Masembe C, Megens H, Miele MJ, Neuditschko M, Nicolazzi EL, Pompanon F, Roosen J, Sevane N, Smetko A, Štambuk A, Streeter I, Stucki S, Supakorn C, Telo da Gama L, Tixier-Boichard M, Wegmann D, Zhan X    (2015) Prospects and Challenges for the Conservation of Farm Animal Genomic Resources. Frontiers in Genetics.

Staes N, Koski SE, Helsen P., Fransen E., Eens M., Stevens J. (2015) Chimpanzee sociability is associated with vasopressin (Avpr1a) but not oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) variation. Hormones and Behavior.

Stanton D, Helsen P, Shephard J, Leus K, Penfold l, Hart J, Kumpel N, Ewen J, Wang J, Galbusera P, Bruford M (2015) Genetic structure of captive and free-ranging okapi (Okapia johnstoni) with implications for management. Conservation genetics.

Staes N, Stevens J, Helsen P, Hillyer M, Korody M, Eens M (2014) Oxytocin and Vasopressin Receptor Gene Variation as a Proximate Base for Inter-and Intraspecific Behavioral Differences in Bonobos and Chimpanzees. PLoS ONE 11/2014; 9(11):e113364. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0113364

Stanton D, Hart J, Galbusera P, Helsen P, Shephard J, Kümpel N, Wang J, Ewen J, Bruford M (2014) Distinct and Diverse: Range-Wide Phylogeography Reveals Ancient Lineages and High Genetic Variation in the Endangered Okapi (Okapia johnstoni). PLoS ONE 07/2014; 9(7):e101081. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0101081 

Jordaens K, Van Houtte N, Helsen P, Breuglemans K, Jaksons P, Backeljau T (2013) Mixed breeding system in the hermaphroditic land slug Arion intermedius (Stylommatophora, Arionidae). Hereditas 

Tkint T, Verheyen E, De Kegel B, Helsen P, Adriaens D (2012) Dealing with Food and Eggs in Mouthbrooding Cichlids: Structural and Functional Trade-Offs in Fitness Related Traits. PLOS ONE

Helsen Ph., Verdyck P., Van Dongen S. Phylogeny and population genetics of a specialist Opuntia feeder: Gerstaeckeria galapagoensis. (Under Revision)

Helsen Ph., Verdyck P., Van Dongen, S. (2011) The influence of historical gene flow and ring speciation conditions on the genetics of morphological diverse Galapagos’ Opuntias Journal of Molecular Evolution.

Helsen Ph., Vandewoestijne S., Van Dongen S., Matthysen E. (2010) Isolation and characterization of ten polymorphic microsatellite markers from the Speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria, Nymphalidae). Molecular Ecology Resource.

Helsen Ph., Verdyck P., Tye A., Van Dongen St (2009) Low levels of genetic differentiation between Opuntia echios varieties on Santa Cruz (Galapagos). Plant Systematics and Evolution 279: 1-10.

Helsen Ph., Van Dongen, S. (2009) The normal distribution as appropriate model of developmental instability in Opuntia cacti flowers. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 22: 1346-1353.

Helsen Ph., Browne RA, Anderson DJ, Verdyck P. &  Van Dongen S. (2008) Galapagos’ Opuntia (Prickly Pear) Cacti: Extensive Morphological Diversity, Low Genetic Variability. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 96: 451-461.

Helsen Ph., Verdyck P., Tye A., Desender K., Van Houtte N., Van Dongen St. (2007) Isolation and characterization of polymorphic microsatellite markers in Galapagos prickly pear (Opuntia) cactus species. Molecular Ecology Notes 7: 454-456.

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