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Engineering symbionts for control of vector born diseases

   School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

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  Dr Lee Henry, Dr Chema Martin  No more applications being accepted  Awaiting Funding Decision/Possible External Funding

About the Project

  • Supervisors: Dr Lee Henry and Dr Chema Martin
  • Funding: China Scholarship Council (CSC)
  • Deadline: 31st January 2023

Research environment

The School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences at Queen Mary is one of the UK’s elite research centres, according to the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF). We offer a multi-disciplinary research environment and have approximately 180 PhD student. Our students have access to a variety of research facilities supported by experienced staff, as well as a range of student support services.

The successful applicant will enter a vibrant research environment, under the supervision of Dr Lee Henry. The lab is well equipped to carry out the proposed research with world-class facilities in genomics and molecular biology. The student will also have access to ample funds to facilitate the research through Dr. Henry's external funding (~£2.5M to date), including a recently acquired BBSRC-NSF grant on a similar topic (£1.04M) that will support the students research. Dr. Henry current supervises 3 PhD students, 2 postdoctoral researcher, and a technician and has an outstanding record with student supervision with a focus on students generating high impact first authorship publications (e.g. Jackson et al 2022 ISME Journal, Wu et al 2022 Proc Soc B, Monnin et al 2020 Current Biology). 

Dr Lee Henry is a Reader in Molecular Microbial Ecology. For research details see 

Training and development

Our PhD students become part of Queen Mary’s Doctoral College which provides training and development opportunities, advice on funding, and financial support for research. Our students also have access to a Researcher Development Programme designed to help recognise and develop key skills needed to effectively manage research, and to prepare for the next stages of their career.

The PhD student will gain experience in advanced molecular techniques (e.g. RNAi, CRISPR, GFP), analyses of high-throughput data (e.g. bioinformatics of transcriptomic/genomic data), experimental and field techniques, and statistics. 

Project description

Insects vector globally important disease in agriculture and humans that pose significant health and economic burdens (e.g. dengue, malaria, mosaic viruses). Current insecticide-based control methods are becoming ineffective and undesirable due to environmental pollution, and insecticide resistant insect populations. Endosymbionts provide a promising new approach for controlling disease by making insects less susceptible to carrying pathogens by up regulating host immune systems, while also rapidly spreading through insect population via maternal transmission.

For example, introducing Wolbachia to mosquitos has reduced dengue virus by 77% in Indonesian field trails1. However, our current understanding of how symbionts interact with hosts is limited by a lack of genome editing tools in symbionts, most of which cannot be cultured outside of hosts. New models are urgently needed to understand how symbionts interact with host immunity, cause virulence, and transmit through host populations to improve their efficacy and applicability in vector-borne disease control. 

In this PhD, we will take advantage of a newly discovered culturable endosymbiont, Serratia symbiotica CWBI-2.3, which can be genetically engineered and tracked using fluorescent protein expression (GFP). We aim to identify symbiont genes responsible for up regulate host immunity, causing virulence, and improving symbiont transmission to gain a mechanistic understanding of traits important for designing symbionts to effectively combating vector borne diseases. 

The PhD will build off our pilot data that revealed candidate symbiont genes interacting with host immunity and causing virulence in aphids. The student will silence candidate genes in CWBI-2.3, quantify impacts on hosts, and track the symbiosis using GFP. These techniques will then be applied to symbionts found in other insect vectors using a novel culturing method developed by US collaborators. Our goal is to develop symbiont-based control strategies for diverse insect vectors of global importance in agriculture and human health (e.g. aphids, sandflies, ticks).

Eligibility and applying

Applicants must be:

- Chinese students with a strong academic background.

- Students holding a PR Chinese passport.

- Either be resident in China at the time of application or studying overseas.

- Students with prior experience of studying overseas (including in the UK) are eligible to apply. Chinese QMUL graduates/Masters’ students are therefore eligible for the scheme.

Please refer to the CSC website for full details on eligibility and conditions on the scholarship. 

Applications are invited from outstanding candidates with or expecting to receive a first or upper-second class honours degree in an area relevant to the project (e.g. microbiology, evolutionary or molecular biology, bioinformatics/computer science). A masters degree is desirable, but not essential.

Experience in microbiology or molecular biology or bioinformatics is desirable, but not essential. 

Applicants from outside of the UK are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our English language requirements page for details:

Informal enquiries about the project can be sent to Dr. Lee Henry at [Email Address Removed]. Formal applications must be submitted through our online form by 31st January 2023 for consideration, including a CV, personal statement and qualifications. 

Shortlisted applicants will be invited for a formal interview by the project supervisor. Those who are successful in their application for our PhD programme will be issued with an offer letter which is conditional on securing a CSC scholarship along with academic conditions still required to meet our entry requirements.

Once applicants have obtained their offer letter from Queen Mary they should then apply to CSC for the scholarship by the advertised deadline with the support of the project supervisor.

For September 2023 entry, applicants must complete the CSC application on the CSC website between 10th March - 31st March 2023. 

Only applicants who are successful in their application to CSC can be issued an unconditional offer and enrol on our PhD programme. For further information, please go to:

Apply Online

Funding Notes

This studentship is open to students applying for China Scholarship Council funding. Queen Mary University of London has partnered with the China Scholarship Council (CSC) to offer a joint scholarship programme to enable Chinese students to study for a PhD programme at Queen Mary. Under the scheme, Queen Mary will provide scholarships to cover all tuition fees, whilst the CSC will provide living expenses for 4 years and one return flight ticket to successful applicants.


Recent PhD lead papers from the Henry Lab:
Wu T, Monnin D, Lee RAR, Henry LM (2022) Local adaptation to hosts and parasitoids shape Hamiltonella defensa genotypes across aphid species. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 289: 20221269
Jackson R, Monnin D, Patapiou PA, Golding G, Helanterä H, Oettler J, ... Henry LM (2022) Convergent evolution of a labile nutritional symbiosis in ants. The ISME journal 16: 2114-2122
Jackson R, Henry LM, Wurm Y (2020). Evolution: The Legacy of Endosymbiosis in Ants. Current Biology 30:R1385-R1387.
Monnin D, Jackson R, Kiers ET, Bunker M, Ellers J, Henry LM (2020). Parallel Evolution in the Integration of a Co-obligate Aphid Symbiosis. Current Biology 30: R446-R448
Simmons CP et al. (2012) Dengue. N Engl J Med 366:1423-1432
Perreau J et al (2021) Engineering a Culturable Serratia symbiotica Strain for Aphid Paratransgenesis. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 87:e02245-20.
Brandt JW et al. (2017) Culture of an aphid heritable symbiont demonstrates its direct role in defence against parasitoids. Proc Biol Sci 284:20171925Patel et al (2019) Cultivation-Assisted
Genome of Candidatus Fukatsuia symbiotica; the Enigmatic “X-Type” Symbiont of Aphids. Genome Biol. Evol. 11:3510.
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