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FULLY FUNDED PHD: Testing for adaptive changes in the microbiome of sticklebacks in relation to geothermal heating

Project Description


All animals are microbial ecosystems, but with individuals differing in the composition and function of their resident microbiota1.

Microbial communities can include commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic microorganisms that are major players for determining inter-individual variation in metabolism, digestion, feeding behaviour, development, growth, and overall performance(2).

But how might these processes be influenced by a warming world?

Climate change may alter the available communities of microbiota contracted by organisms(3).

This could have important downstream effects mediated by microbiota such as the stimulation of gut and intestine development.

Further, relationships between mitochondrial activity, ATP synthesis, and microbes could be altered to change energy use and efficiency.

Studies on non-mammalian models such as fish are needed to provide insights into these potential responses in natural populations, and for understanding how microbiota are impacted by the environment (4).

Temperature influences the composition and abundance of microbiota.

This could significantly alter biodiversity at multiple scales beyond the microbiome.

Therefore, using unique systems of stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus) from Iceland that inhabit geothermally-warmed habitats this exciting project will address the following three questions:

1) How does the microbiome of stickleback vary in relation to thermal habitat?
2) Does thermally-related microbiome variation influence the development and function of the gut?
3) Do temperature associated differences in the microbiome influence mitochondrial activity, energy use efficiency, and the production of ATP?

Findings should provide fundamental insights into how ectotherms will respond to climate change.

The study system is extremely powerful due to the close proximity of long-term naturally-warmed populations to comparable ambient temperature populations.

These sticklebacks are also highly amenable to being kept in the lab which affords a great deal of experimental flexibility.

The studentship should appeal to individuals with an interest in evolution, ecology, developmental biology and conservation.

The project will involve both field and lab work with the opportunity to interact with Icelandic collaborators.


Approaches would involve field work in Iceland combined with a series of complementary lab experiments.

Question 1 would involve the collection of wild sticklebacks from multiple sites. Material from these specimens would be preserved and returned to Glasgow University for processing and microbiome profiling.

Briefly, this would involve the use of high throughput targeted amplicon sequencing of the 16S ribosomal RNA (rRNA) subunit encoded by 16S rDNA. These data would provide a means for assessing both the diversity and abundance of microbiota and provide a means to assess differences between fish residing in warmed and ambient habitats.

To address questions 2 and 3 fish would be exposed to experimental manipulations of their microbiome.

This would allow for the effects of the microbiome including its interaction with a fish host to be assessed.

Therefore, following established protocols germ-free stickleback4,5 would be generated and reciprocally inoculated with microbiota from geothermal and ambient habitats. Inoculation would be assessed with further 16s sequencing and confirmation would provide a basis for comparison among treatment groups.

Specifically, for question 2 embryos would be collected during periods of gut and intestine development for histological examination. Gene expression for gut-related genes would also be examined using in situ hybridization and qPCR.

For question 3 inoculated fish would again be used to examine metabolic activity in the stomach, muscle and liver. Specifically, extracted live tissue would be used for high resolution respirometry which enables the examination of mitochondrial activity, ATP production, and oxygen use.

Training and skills

The candidate will learn a broad range of transferable skills that will enhance their prospects and prepare them for a career in academia or industry.

These skills include genomic sequencing, microbiological sampling, fish husbandry, high-resolution respirometry, data management and manipulation, molecular and developmental biology.

In addition, the field work component will provide the experience of international fieldwork and the interaction with a team in Iceland.


Funding Notes


Funding is available to cover tuition fees for EU/UK applicants, as well as paying a stipend at the Research Council rate (estimated £15,009 for Session 2019/2020).

Students who have obtained a B.Sc with a 2:1 or higher, or an MRes/Msci in a related topic are welcome to apply


References and Further reading
1) Youngblut ND, et al. (2019) Nature Communications 10: 2200.
2) Robinson CD, et al. (2018) PLoS Biology 16: e2006893.
3) Cavicchioli R, et al. 2019. Nature Reviews Microbiology 17: 569-586.
4) Small CM, et al. (2017) Genome Biology and Evolution 9: 504-520.
5) Kathryn M, et al. (2016) Disease Models & Mechanisms 9: 187-198

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