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EASTBIO: Cetaceans - out of the box model for tackling obesity.

  • Full or part time
    Dr D Derous
    Prof D Lusseau
    Dr A Douglas
    Dr Dorian Houser
  • Application Deadline
    Sunday, January 05, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description


Dr Davina Derous (University of Aberdeen)

Professor David Lusseau (University of Aberdeen) Lusseau

Dr Alex Douglas (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Dorian Houser (National Marine Mammal Foundation) &

Obesity is defined as an excessive fat accumulation and is associated with metabolic disorders such as diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases (also known as the metabolic syndrome). Approximately 63% adults were overweight or obese in 2015 in England and obesity is responsible for more than 30,000 deaths each year [1]. This obesity epidemic has placed great financial burden on NHS resources and an estimated £6.1 billion was spend on overweight and obesity-related ill-health in 2014 to 2015 [1]. Hence finding a subset of the population resilient to the damaging metabolic effects of obesity is crucial to develop new treatments. We therefore ideally need a “host” environment where we do have a stable state of healthy obesity to understand how this phenotype emerges and is maintained.

Cetaceans (i.e. dolphins and whales) are non-model organism where obesity might be an indicator of good health [2]. They transitioned from a terrestrial life to an aquatic life by adapting their anatomical structure, physiology and metabolism. The critical physiological and morphological changes these mammals endured included a thickening of the blubber of up to 55% (i.e. classified as morbidly obese) to provide a thermal insulation, to deal with more sporadic foraging opportunities, and to support locomotion. Although we suspect adipose tissue biology of cetaceans functions in a similar manner as land mammals, some differences in key genes have been identified [3].

Fat stores not only play a role in maintaining energy balance, but also play a crucial signalling role to other organs to regulate energy metabolism. Therefore,cetaceans provide exciting opportunities to understand how metabolic syndrome and the associated diseases of obesity emerge. Indeed, bottlenose dolphins have now been proposed as a candidate model organism for diabetes.

This project will use modern molecular, statistical and bioinformatic approaches to help understand how cetaceans have evolved over millions of years to become healthy while morbid obese. You will develop new methods to infer changes in biological pathways based on the mutation rate of their genes to determine physiological changes associated with increased adiposity. This project is data- intensive and will lead to development of new tools and methods which will be valuable to other scientist in the field and is highly interdisciplinary. This project will integrate the fields of bioinformatics, cell biology and systems physiology.

Depending on the student’s skills and interests, the project can be taken into several further directions and explore different questions, such as further unravel gene selection related to energy metabolism and obesity, working with cell lines, analyse transcriptomic data or develop methods to integrating data from a cellular level to health status. The successful student will receive training in statistics, mathematical modelling, pathway visualisation programs and any required wet lab techniques.

Application Procedure:

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

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership. This opportunity is only open to UK nationals (or EU students who have been resident in the UK for 3+ years immediately prior to the programme start date) due to restrictions imposed by the funding body. Queries on eligibility? Email Alison McLeod ().

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a First Class Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2:1 Honours degree may be considered provided they have a Distinction at Masters level.


1. Public Health England. Health matters: obesity and the food environment - GOV.UK [Internet]. Available from s/health-matters-obesity-and-the-food- environment/health-matters-obesity-and- the-food-environment--2

2. Wang Z, Chen Z, Xu S, Ren W, Zhou K, Yang G. “Obesity” is healthy for cetaceans? Evidence from pervasive positive selection in genes related to triacylglycerol metabolism. Sci Rep. 2015; 5: 14187. doi: 10.1038/srep14187.

3. Ball HC, Londraville RL, Prokop JW, George JC, Suydam RS, Vinyard C, Thewissen JGM, Duff RJ. Beyond thermoregulation: metabolic function of cetacean blubber in migrating bowhead and beluga whales. J Comp Physiol B. 2017; 187: 235–52.
1029-6. doi: 10.1007/s00360-016-

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