FindA University Ltd Featured PhD Programmes
FindA University Ltd Featured PhD Programmes
FindA University Ltd Featured PhD Programmes

Ecosystem resilience to pathogens: understanding the interplay between pathogen host shifts and coevolutionary dynamics (Funded by the QUEX Institute)

The Graduate School

Monday, August 31, 2020 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Pathogens are an inevitable part of every ecosystem. In humans as well as in livestock and natural systems, the majority of pathogens have only arrived in their host species relatively recently, by switching from a different host species. In addition to the epidemiological processes of within- and between-host species transmission, pathogens also often evolve very rapidly – their genomes change as they adapt to their host through processes such as mutation, natural selection and random genetic drift. To complicate things further, their hosts also undergo evolutionary change, and evolution in hosts and pathogens can be tightly linked: hosts evolve resistance to pathogens and in turn pathogens evolve to overcome this resistance, resulting in continuous coevolutionary arms races.

Evolutionary biologists have long been fascinated by host-pathogen coevolution and a large body of literature is devoted to understanding the dynamics, patterns of resistance and susceptibility arising through time and space, as well as the underlying infection genetics. However, the scope of these studies is almost exclusively restricted to a single pair of host and pathogen species.

In this project we will combine theoretical and experimental approaches to investigate more realistic systems in which coevolution between multiple pathogen and multiple host species are considered. For the theoretical part, to be conducted at The University of Queensland under the supervision of Dr Jan Engelstaedter, mathematical models will be constructed and analysed in which host species may interact with each other through various processes (e.g., competition or predation), and pathogens may switch more or less rapidly between host species. Both analytical methods and computer simulations will be used to assess how coevolution impacts the ability of pathogens to undergo host shifts and how in turn host shifts affect coevolution. In the experimental part of the project, to be performed at the University of Exeter under Dr Ben Longdon’s supervision, these theoretical predictions will be scrutinised by using a system of bacteria as hosts (several Staphylococcus species) and a range of viruses (bacteriophages) as their pathogens. This system is ideally suited to study host shifts in a high-throughput manner, and the experiments will be the first to interrogate the interplay between coevolution and the ability of pathogens to jump between host species. The results from this project are expected to have wide-ranging implication in several fields, including ecosystem stability, emerging infectious diseases, and agriculture.

Funding Notes

This scholarship includes a living stipend of AUD $28,092 (2020) tax free, indexed annually, tuition fees and Overseas Student Health Cover (where applicable). A travel grant of AUD $8,500 per annum, and a training grant of AUD $3,000 are also available over the program.

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