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EASTBIO Ageing and parental care: understanding what drives variation in oxidative stress and telomere attrition among parents.

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr N Pilakouta, Dr P Bize, Prof Mike Ritchie, Dr J Moorad  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


Dr Natalie Pilakouta (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Pierre Bize (University of Aberdeen)

Professor Mark Ritchie (University of St. Andrews)

Dr Jacob Moorad (University of Edinburgh)

Parental care is beneficial for the offspring but energetically demanding for the parents. High investment in parental care may therefore come at a cost, such as a faster rate of ageing due to increased oxidative stress and telomere attrition (Merkling et al. 2017). Yet, the underlying molecular mechanisms linking parental care to ageing remain understudied despite being highly relevant to human health. This PhD project will use an original invertebrate model system, the burying beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides, to address this research gap. Burying beetles have facultative biparental care, which means that in some broods both parents provide care, whereas in other broods, there is female-only care, male-only care, or no care. This flexible parental care system provides an excellent opportunity to experimentally test the physiological costs of being a parent.

Project aims
This PhD project will focus on three key aims to better understand the molecular mechanisms linking parental care to ageing:
(1) Investigate what factors drive variation in oxidative stress and telomere attrition among parents during care
For example, female burying beetles typically provide more care than males (Pilakouta et al. 2018), but it is unclear whether females suffer increased physiological costs as a result. The student could also investigate whether old parents are more prone to oxidative stress and telomere attrition than young parents. The student will conduct a series of controlled laboratory experiments to address this aim.
(2) Identify ageing-related genes that are differentially expressed among parents
The student will use transcriptomic techniques (Parker et al. 2015) to identify ageing-related genes and compare their expression among parents depending on their sex, age, and other relevant factors.
(3) Test whether supplementation with antioxidants can alleviate the physiological costs of parental care
Lastly, the student will investigate whether parents provided with food that has been supplemented with antioxidants experience lower levels of oxidative stress and telomere attrition than parents fed a non-supplemented diet. This work could provide important insights into possible management strategies to moderate the physiological costs of parental care in animal organisms.

The PhD student will employ a wide range of techniques integrating animal behaviour, physiology, molecular biology, and evolutionary ecology. He or she will gain valuable skills in physiological assays, behavioural observations, animal husbandry, statistical modelling, and cutting-edge molecular biology techniques including transcriptomics (wet lab and bioinformatics). There will also be a focus on transferrable skills, such as project management, written communication, and oral communication.

Supervisory team
The student will be based primarily at the University of Aberdeen under the supervision of Dr Natalie Pilakouta, who is an evolutionary biologist and behavioural ecologist. The student will also be co-supervised by Dr Pierre Bize (ecophysiology) at University of Aberdeen, Prof Mike Ritchie (transcriptomics) at University of St Andrews, and Dr Jacob Moorad (ageing and life history evolution) at University of Edinburgh.

Application Procedure:

Please send your completed EASTBIO application form, along with academic transcripts to Alison McLeod at [Email Address Removed]. Two references should be provided by the deadline using the EASTBIO reference form. Please advise your referees to return the reference form to [Email Address Removed].

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership This opportunity is open to UK and International students and provides funding to cover stipend and UK level tuition (limited funding is available to provide international tuition fees). Please refer to UKRI website and Annex B of the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions for full eligibility criteria.

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2:1 UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in a relevant subject.


Merkling T, et al. (2017) Reproductive effort and oxidative stress: effects of offspring sex and number on the physiological state of a long‐lived bird. Functional Ecology 31:1201-9.
Parker DJ, et al. (2015) Transcriptomes of parents identify parenting strategies and sexual conflict in a subsocial beetle. Nature Communications 6: 8449.
Pilakouta N, et al. (2018) Biparental care is more than the sum of its parts: evidence for synergistic effects on offspring fitness. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 285:20180875.
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