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EASTBIO: Origin and maintenance of plasticity in response to thermal stress in invasive and declining ants.

  • Full or part time
    Dr F Manfredini
    Dr L Lancaster
    Dr J Stockan
    Dr N Bailey
  • 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 Fabio Manfredini (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Lesley Lancaster (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Jenni Stockan (The James Hutton Institute)

Dr Nathan Bailey (University of Aberdeen)

Organisms display a wide range of responses to climate change. One of these is thermal tolerance, i.e. the ability to function within a broad spectrum of environmental temperatures. Some organisms are able to increase their spectrum of tolerance to lower temperatures, thus expanding their range to higher latitudes (Lancaster 2016). Other organisms, instead, are less plastic and face population declines in the face of climate change. It is unknown how such drastic levels of plasticity in tolerance to thermal stress originates at the molecular level. This project aims at exploring this question in ants, widespread organisms that include examples at both ends of the spectrum: from endangered declining species to global invaders.

The project will consist of three steps:
1) field measures of thermal tolerance in ant colonies
2) “common garden” assays to test transgenerational plasticity of response to thermal stress
3) reverse genetics to link gene function with phenotypes of interest

STEP 1) The student will perform field work in two locations where populations of two ant species occur: the narrow-headed wood ant Formica exsecta and the invasive garden ant Lasius neglectus. First location will be Northern UK, to target a declining population of F. exsecta and an expanding population of L. neglectus, while the second location will be Northern Italy, where stable populations of both species occur. Ant foragers from focal colonies will be sampled at three different times of the day corresponding to the beginning/peak/end of the colony foraging activity. Several workers from each colony will be pooled and processed for global analysis of gene expression (transcriptomics) and epigenetic regulation (methylomics or histone modification). Thereafter, the best candidate genes will be selected that show broad differences in regulation across ant populations (a similar approach has been used in Manfredini et al. 2018).

STEP 2) Common garden assays will be performed using controlled temperature containment facilities. The student will sample newly mated queens of F. exsecta and L. neglectus from the same populations described above and maintain them under a range of different conditions of thermal stress. Workers (queen’s daughters) that emerge from each newly formed colony will be assessed for the plasticity in their response to thermal stress. This will be done by analysing the profiles of gene expression and epigenetic regulation for candidate genes selected from STEP 1.

3) The student will select the best candidate genes from STEP 2, i.e. genes that show high magnitude of response to thermal stress (see for example Stanton-Geddes et al. 2016). Good candidates will be genes that are highly activated by thermal stress (higher expression) or genes that are repressed instead (higher methylation). The activity of the best candidate genes will be modified with a reverse genetics approach, to confirm that a change in gene function corresponds to a change in the associated phenotype. This will be achieved by reducing gene expression via gene silencing (e.g. RNAi) or by increasing gene expression with inhibition of methylation.

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.


Lancaster, Lesley T. "Widespread range expansions shape latitudinal variation in insect thermal limits." Nature climate change 6.6 (2016): 618.

Manfredini, Fabio, Mark JF Brown, and Amy L. Toth. "Candidate genes for cooperation and aggression in the social wasp Polistes dominula." Journal of Comparative Physiology A 204.5 (2018): 449-463.

Stanton-Geddes, John, et al. "Thermal reactionomes reveal divergent responses to thermal extremes in warm and cool-climate ant species." BMC genomics 17.1 (2016): 171.

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