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EASTBIO: How does inbreeding influence a population’s capacity to cope with thermal stress?

  • Full or part time
    Dr N Pilakouta
    Dr L Lancaster
    Prof MG Ritchie
    Dr P Smiseth
  • 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 Natalie Pilakouta (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Lesley Lancaster (University of Aberdeen)

Professor Mike Ritchie (University of St. Andrews)

Dr Per Smiseth (University of Edinburgh)

Animal populations are currently experiencing a period of unprecedented environmental change, which is imposing novel selection pressures on organisms and increasing the risk of extinction. For example, rising average temperatures due to climate change are accompanied by increased environmental variability, resulting in more frequent extreme climatic events. Nevertheless, anthropogenic threats to biodiversity extend beyond thermal stress. Anthropogenic change has also resulted in habitat loss and fragmentation, which increases the rate of inbreeding by creating small isolated populations, where relatives are more likely to mate with each other. Inbreeding typically causes a reduction in offspring fitness due to a higher degree of homozygosity, and it has profound implications for genetic variation and population persistence.

It is therefore timely to understand how thermal stress and inbreeding may interact in influencing population performance under rapid environmental change. Using the burying beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides as a model system, the proposed project will address this important knowledge gap by answering three key questions:

(1) Does thermal stress exacerbate inbreeding depression in the offspring?
To determine whether the effects of inbreeding and thermal stress on offspring fitness are additive or multiplicative, the student will compare the performance of inbred versus outbred offspring in the presence and absence of thermal stress.

(2) Does inbreeding in the parents have detrimental effects on offspring performance under thermal stress?
The student will then examine whether there are differences in the ability of inbred versus outbred parents to buffer against thermal stress in their offspring.

(3) What are the molecular mechanisms underlying changes in animal behaviour and performance under thermal stress and inbreeding?
The student will also investigate how thermal stress and inbreeding alter DNA methylation patterns, gene expression, and oxidative stress in the parents and the offspring.

This project will link behavioural changes in the parents and offspring to the underlying molecular mechanisms and resulting effects on fitness, providing important insights into how inbreeding may affect the capacity of populations to cope with global climate change. The student will employ a wide range of cutting-edge techniques integrating molecular biology, evolutionary ecology, physiology, and animal behaviour. They will gain valuable skills in transcriptomics (wet lab and bioinformatics), physiological assays, behavioural observations, statistical modelling, and animal husbandry.

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.


Grew R, Ratz T, Richardson J, Smiseth PT (2019) Parental care buffers against effects of ambient temperature on offspring performance in an insect. Behavioral Ecology 30:1443-1450.

Pilakouta N, Jamieson S, Moorad JA, Smiseth PT (2015) Parental care buffers against inbreeding depression in burying beetles. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112:8031-8035.

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