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Actions of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in seabirds


Project Description

This project will be supervised by Professor Gary Hardiman of Queen’s University School of Biological Sciences/Institute for Global Food Security, Professor Paul Thompson of the University of Aberdeen’s School of Biological Sciences/Lighthouse Field Station, and Dr Pierre Bize of the University of Aberdeen’s School of Biological Sciences. The start date will be 1 October 2019.

The exposure of humans, fish, and other animals to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) is a global problem. One group of EDCs that have received attention in recent years include plasticizers such as phthalates and alkylphenols. Although the mechanisms of action of EDCs are actively studied, understanding adaptations that have evolved to cope with chronic EDC exposure, and the consequences of endocrine disruption (ED) at the population level, is more challenging. Many bird species are long-lived, top-level predators, sharing a similar pattern of exposure to EDCs as humans. Ingestion of plastic has been widely studied amongst seabirds, where it is mistaken for food (1). Omics and Big Data approaches now provide exciting opportunities to understand the ecotoxicological consequences of this exposure.

This project will provide novel insights into epigenetic alterations in the northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis); a species that is used as a key indicator of marine plastic pollution within OSPAR and the EU Marine Strategy Framework. This will be achieved by investigating epigenetic modifications in fulmars as sentinel species using the ‘canary in a coal mine’ metaphor. Fulmars are long-lived (up to 50 years), and their vulnerability to EDCs within and between populations is predicted to be affected by individual and sex-specific differences in foraging behavior, diet and distribution that, in turn, will affect exposure to threats such as marine plastics. The fulmar genome has been recently sequenced (BGI_fulGla_0.0), providing a foundation for exploiting genomic information to develop biomarkers of exposure. In parallel, toolkits such as the Avian RNA-Seq Consortium have emerged. Feathers provide a non-invasive means of assessing hypo and hyper DNA methylation in fulmars in the context of ontogeny, geolocation, sex, and foraging ecology. Blood owing to its circulatory nature is an excellent surrogate tissue to assess epigenetic perturbations and is readily amenable to transcriptomic analyses and measures of health markers. These high-throughput Omics data will allow systems level modeling of the epigenome and the identification of epialleles that are variably expressed (2) as well as investigating the links between modification of the epigenome and health. The Adverse Outcome Pathway framework will be exploited to place these data in a context that can guide risk assessment (3).

The project’s multidisciplinary approach provides an excellent opportunity for training in various aspects of avian ecology and advanced environmental and risk assessment analysis. Moreover, it provides an exceptional opportunity for research training in both Northern Ireland and Scotland whereby the successful candidate will work collaboratively across disciplines and research cultures to generate new insights that transcend traditional boundaries. The project will combine aspects of avian field ecology, marine biology, environmental chemistry, genetics, bioinformatics, and systems biology. Consequently, subject-specific training will be offered in each of these areas. This will comprise a mix of appropriate postgraduate level training (e.g. molecular biology, bioinformatics, genetics, biogeochemistry, computer science, environmental change) and ‘hands-on’ training in the advanced systems level methods used.

Funding Notes

This studentship is available to UK and other EU nationals and provides funding for tuition fees and stipend, subject to eligibility.

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject.

References

Application Procedure:

(1) Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Sciences;
(2) State name of the lead supervisor as the name of proposed supervisor;
(3) State QUADRAT DTP as intended source of funding;
(4) State the exact project title on the application form.

How good is research at Queen’s University Belfast in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 24.40

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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