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EASTBIO The interplay between genes and viruses in the honey bee brain and its effects on foraging behaviour.

School of Biological Sciences

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Dr F Manfredini , Dr A Bowman , Dr Mark Barnett No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


Dr Fabio Manfredini (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Alan Bowman (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Mark Barnett (University of Edinburgh, Roslin Institute)

Insect pollinators are incredibly important to global food production and food security, with honey bees being by far the most important managed pollinating species in food production systems. Over the past few decades honey bees have been affected by a health crisis worldwide. The cause of the bee health crisis is multifactorial and includes modern agricultural practices, habitat changes, climate changes, pesticides and pathogens. In the USA and Europe, including notably the UK, among the important pathogens are the newly introduced Varroa mite and the long-standing and endemic deformed wing virus (DWV). Together, Varroa and DWV have become a lethal cocktail severely affecting overwintering losses worldwide, including here in the UK.

One of the more subtle effects of DWV on individual bees, but a critical effect on the colony itself, is DWV’s negative effect on foraging activity. DWV-infected bees have a reduced life span and start foraging prematurely through accelerated behavioural maturation. Infected bees fly shorter distance and duration but perform more foraging trips, i.e. they are hyperactive. In earlier studies, DWV was demonstrated to impair learning and memory formation – a critical step for foraging behaviour following on from communication delivered in the waggle dance.

The student will investigate the effects of the virus presence in the bee brain and its effects at the level of bee cognition and foraging behaviour. The student will employ a range of different techniques to approach the problem from multiple angles. First, the student will perform behavioural assays to test cognitive performance of bee foragers from multiple colonies. These tests will be of two kinds: (1) the proboscis elongation reflex (PER), and (2) the analysis of the waggle dance. Thereafter the student will quantify viral loads for DWV in the honey bee brain by means of real-time PCR. Samples that present the strongest correlation between viral loads and cognitive performance will be selected for a transcriptomic approach where the expression of the whole brain gene set will be quantified to identify key genes affected by the presence of DWV.

The last part of the studentship will be dedicated to applying two innovative techniques to this area of research. In the first approach the student will use functional microscopy (e.g. confocal imaging, in situ hybridisation, immunohistochemistry) to identify the exact location of viral particles in different parts of the bee brain. Areas with the highest concentration of viral particles will be subjected to single-cell RNA sequencing, to characterize the effects the viral infection at the level of individual neurons. In the second approach antiviral therapies will be administered to bees to test whether brain gene expression can be rescued by reducing viral levels in the brain and, as a consequence, also cognitive functions can be restored.

The student will be trained in modern molecular approaches (e.g. qPCR and RNAseq), functional microscopy, virology and neurobiology while addressing a real-world problem of honey bee health. The project offers much scope for the student to develop the direction of the work.

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.
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