Dr Oliver Tills

Dr Oliver Tills

Senior Research Fellow

School of Biological and Marine Sciences (Faculty of Science and Engineering)

Research Fellow in the School of Biological and Marine Science


Dr Tills is a marine biologist with a training in developmental ecophysiology. His research focuses on the early development of aquatic organisms within the context of their environment. To support this research he has developed a breadth of skills to enable the development of new technology enabled approaches to studying the dynamic process of early development. Dr Tills has led the development of EmbryoPhenomics an automated technological platform for the high-throughput screening of aquatic embryos and this has included both; hardware in the form of OpenVIM - an open-source video microscope for high-throughput screening of aquatic embryos and EmbryoCV a Python package for automated analysis of embryonic time series video datasets. 

Video of aquatic embryos developing in the EmbryoPhenomics lab can be seen on his EmbryonicDevelopment Vimeo Channel.

Dr Tills' education includes: 

  • PhD Marine Science
  • MRes Marine Biology
  • BSc Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology

Professional membership

Dr Tills is a professional member of:

  • Society for Experimental Biology
  • Physiological Society
  • Genetics Society
  • British Science Association
  • European Evolutionary Developmental Biology Society

Roles on external bodies

Dr Tills is a peer reviewer for:

  • Animal Behaviour
  • Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology
  • Ecotoxicology
  • Fish Biology
  • Journal of Medical and Biological Imaging
  • Marine Biology Research
  • Marine Genomics 
  • Freshwater Biology

Teaching interests

Dr Tills teaches across various programmes and modules running within the School of Biological and Marine Sciences, in addition to supervision of both undergraduate and postgraduate research project students.

These include:

MBIO120 Introduction to Marine Biology

MBIO001 Issues in Marine Biology

BIOL212 Environmental Cell Physiology

MBIO313 Personal Research

MBAM5106 Advanced Research in Marine Biology

MBIO222 Ecophysiology of Marine Animals

MBIO223-5 Methods in Marine Biology

MBIO221 Marine Molecular Biology

GEES001 Study and Mathematical Skills for Science

MBIO123 Marine Biology Field Course

Research interests

I am fascinated by the dynamic process of embryonic development in aquatic organisms. During this process there are complex and interconnected changes happen on a second, minute, hour and daily timescale and this includes changes in morphology, physiology and behaviour. 

My research focusses on understanding the implications of this variation for ecological and evolutionary processes. This has required the development of new technologies and approaches for capturing the dynamic process of embryonic development in unprecedented temporal, spatial and functional resolution. EmbryoPhenomics http://www.embryophenomics.org is a high-throughput technology that incorporates bioimaging hardware and software and which quantifies the process of embryonic development in new ways. While I am a biologist by training, I have spent a significant portion of my time developing new bioimaging technologies and writing software for high-throughput image- and data-analysis in Python and R.

I am currently focussed on applying these technologies to assessing how embryos are responding to the unprecedented rates of both global and local environmental change. I am also developing new analytical approaches to integrating and understanding complex biological responses within the context of phenomics. This has been identified as a major bottleneck throughout biology and one which is in stark contrast to the technological advances observed in the molecular -omic disciplines. I actively engage and incorporate students in all aspects of my research activities and enjoy integrating my research and teaching activities. 

Previous research highlights include demonstrating that variation in the timing of embryonic developmental events within species could be central to ecological and evolutionary processes. Evolution occurs through changes in the way organisms develop and therefore understanding how these changes occur is fundamental to understanding development, ecology and evolution. Changes in the timing of development between species (heterochrony) has been widely documented and has been proposed by some scientists as the main mechanism of evolution. I showed that variation within a species can have a genetic basis and that embryos actually inherit the timing of developmental events from their parents https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn24078-time-lapse-footage-shows-snail-embryo-in-high-gear/.

See http://vimeo.com/channels/embryonicdevelopment for videos of developing aquatic embryos produced in our lab. See also http://www.discoverosmosis.com, our proof of concept digital learning resource developed for Discovery Learning in secondary schools.


Collins M, Tills O, Turner LM, Clark MS, Spicer JI, Truebano. 2018. Moderate reductions in dissolved oxygen may compromise performance in an ecologically-important estuarine invertebrate. Science of the Total Environment, 693:133444.

Tills O, Spicer JI, Grimmer A, Marini S, Jie VW, Tully E, Rundle SD. 2018. A high-throughput and open-source platform for embryo phenomics. PLoS Biology, 16:e3000074.

Tills O, Truebano M, Feldmeyer B, Pfenninger M, Morgenroth H, Schell T, et al. 2018. Transcriptomic responses to predator kairomones in embryos of the aquatic snail Radix balthica. Ecology and Evolution. 201831:79–12.

Truebano M, Fenner P, Tills O, Rundle SD, Rezende EL. 2018. Thermal strategies vary with life history stage. Journal of Experimental Biology 221: jeb171629–5.

Truebano M, Tills O, Collins M, Clarke C, Shipsides E, Wheatley C, et al. 2018. Short-term acclimation in adults does not predict offspring acclimation potential to hypoxia. Scientific Reports, 8:1-9.

Schell T, Feldmeyer B, Schmidt H, Greshake B, Tills O, Truebano M, Rundle SD, Paule S, Ebersberger I, Pfenninger M 2017. An annotated draft genome for Radix auricularia (Gastropoda, Mollusca). Genome Biology and Evolution 9: 585-592.

Tills O, Sun X, Rundle SD, Heimbach T, Gibson T, Cartwright A, Palmer M, Rudin-Bitterli T & Spicer JI 2016. Reduced pH affects pulsing behavior and body size in ephrae of the moon jellyfish, Aurelia aurita. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 480: 54-61.

Truebano M, Tills O & Spicer JI 2016. Embryonic transcriptome of the brackishwater amphipod Gammarus chevreuxi. Marine Genomics 28: 5-6

Tills O, Truebano M & Rundle SD 2015. An embryonic transcriptome of the pulmonate snail Radix balthica. Marine Genomics 24: 259-260.

Rudin-Bitterli TS, Tills O, Spicer JI, Culverhouse PF, Wielhouwer EM, Richardson MK & Rundle SD 2014. Combining motion analysis and microfluidics – A novel approach for detecting whole- animal responses to test substances. PloS ONE 9: e113235.

Tills O, Bitterli T, Culverhouse P, Spicer JI & Rundle SD 2013. A novel application of motion analysis for detecting stress responses in embryos at different stages of development. BMC Bioinformatics 14: 37.

Tills O, Rundle SD & Spicer JI 2013. Variance in developmental event timing is greatest at low biological levels: implications for heterochrony. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 110: 581-590.

Tills O, Rundle SD & Spicer JI 2013. Parent-offspring similarity in the timing of developmental events: an origin of heterochrony? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280: 1769.

Spicer JI, Rundle SD & Tills O 2011. Studying the altered timing of physiological events during development: It’s about time, or is it? Respiratory Physiology and Neurobiology 178: 3-12.

Tills O, Rundle SD, Culverhouse P, Spicer JI & Bitterli TS 2011. Method and system for determining characteristics of an embryo and uses thereof. Patent, World Intellectual Property Organization.

Tills O, Rundle SD, Salinger M, Haun T, Pfenninger M & Spicer JI 2011. A genetic basis for intraspecific differences in developmental timing? Evolution and Development 13: 542-548.

Tills O, Spicer JI & Rundle SD 2010. Salinity-induced heterokairy in an upper-estuarine population of the snail Radix balthica. Aquatic Biology 9: 95-105.


- Spicer JI, Tills O, Truebano M, Rundle SD. 2018. Developmental Plasticity and Heterokairy. Book Chapter In: Development and Environment, Springer, Switzerland. Eds: Burggren W, Dubansky B.


Hardware and software for visualising, quantifying and studying developing embryos: https://github.com/otills/embryophenomics


Tills O, Rundle SD, Culverhouse P, Spicer JI & Bitterli TS 2011. Method and system for determining characteristics of an embryo and uses thereof. Patent, World Intellectual Property Organization.

Other academic activities

Media Coverage

- New Scientist website – http://newscientist.com/article/dn24078-timelapse-footage-shows-snail-embryo-in-high-geat.html

- Reuters Innovations - http://www.reuters.com/video/2013/10/16/bio-imaging-system-spawns-new-theories-o?videoId=274050528

- Phys.org – http://phys.org/news/2013-08-bio-imaging-technology-peers-heart-embryo.html- Txchnologist – http://txchnologist.com/post/58930740096/time-lapse-videos-of-aquatic-embryos-give-insight

- Technology.org – http://www.technology.org/2013/08/21/new-bio-imaging-technology-peers-into-the-heart-of-embryo-development/

- VisEmbryo.com - http://visembryo.com/story1750.html

- TheKidsShouldSeeThis.org  - http://www.thekidshouldseethis.com/post/61420552160

Outreach- 2018 New Scientist Live, EdExcel, London. - Presented Embryos at the Anthropocene, - 2014 - Gallery, Riga, Latvia – Wandering Snail – an exhibit exploring the interplay between the laboratory and the field in science and the role of technology in bridging this divide - http://www.deborah-robinson.net/wandering-snail.

- 2012 Forms Most Beautiful, Plymouth Museum -https://www.flickr.com/photos/plymouthmuseums/sets/72157629329837350

- 2013 - Peninsula Gallery, PU – Transpositions – an exhibit based around the innovative use of video to explore the role of environmental perturbations during the course of an organism’s development - http://www.deborah-robinson.net/transpositions.- 2012 - Portland Square Building, University of Plymouth – Atria – an interactive exhibit combining sound and video to explore the changes an embryo undergoes in its cardiac function during the developmental process - http://www.davidstrang.co.uk/atria.html.

- Vimeo Channel of Developing Aquatic Embryos - www.vimeo.com/channels/embryonicdevelopment
- EmbryoPhenomics - An open-source platform for phonemics in aquatic embryos www.embryophenomics.org
- OpenVIM - An open-source video microscope - www.openvim.org
- EmbryoCV - An open-source software for Embryo Computer Vision - www.embryocv.org
- Discover Osmosis - A proof of concept video-based learning resource - www.discoverosmosis.com

- Finalist for the award - Postgraduate Research Student of the Year 2011



Videos of developing aquatic embryos produced in our lab


A technological platform I have led the development of for quantifying the phenome of aquatic embryos. It consists of:

 - OpenVIM http://www.openvim.org. An open-source video microscope

 - EmbryoCV http://www.embryocv.org. A high-throughput Python package for automated quantification of complex developmental traits.