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Harnessing the eDNA in tidal flows to assess marine biodiversity

Project Description

This project will be supervised by Dr Sarah Helyar of Queen’s University School of Biological Sciences and by Dr Alex Douglas of the University of Aberdeen’s School of Biological Sciences. The start date will be 1 October 2019.

For marine management to be effective, we need to have comprehensive data on the status of marine biodiversity. However, methods that can document biodiversity in our oceans are currently often extremely time consuming. Traditionally we have used specialist grabs and nets to survey marine communities, but marine environments can be very difficult to sample effectively. Rather than directly sampling these species, sampling the traces of DNA which are present in a body of water from skin, blood, faeces or mucous can be used to identify which species have recently been present in the local environment. Combined with recent advances in sequencing and bioinformatics, this environmental DNA (eDNA) offers a new means of sampling the biodiversity in aquatic ecosystems. Not only is sampling eDNA potentially faster and less expensive than traditional methods, it is also less destructive and has the potential to identify species that due to being rare, small, or able to avoid current sampling gear, are not reliably physically sampled in the environment.

Much of the current research looking at eDNA as a tool for sampling aquatic environments has been carried out in freshwater systems, with currently only a handful of published studies that have tested the approach in the marine environment. This project will take advantage of well characterised, natural, semi-enclosed waterbodies containing different habitat types, such as Strangford Lough, and asses the eDNA profile associated with each of those habitats. The effects of biotic and abiotic factors, such as persistence times, will also be investigated to determine if tidal flows can be harnessed to monitor biodiversity. Further technology development or oceanographic modelling may be included depending on the interests of the student.

The student will address a number of interlinked questions, including:
1) Define and ground truth eDNA profiles associated with known habitats.
2) Explore the effects of biotic and abiotic factors on eDNA samples across enclosed marine water bodies.
3) Determine the utility of single site sampling to assess the biodiversity of semi enclosed marine water bodies.

The project provides unique opportunities to work on in a range of stunning locations across Ireland and Scotland, combining fieldwork with state-of-the-art molecular genetic techniques (including high-throughput DNA sequencing and genotyping using second (Illumina) and third (Oxford Nanopore MinION) generation platforms). The student will be embedded within a dynamic, vibrant and supportive research group to gain training in field skills, bioinformatics, statistical and laboratory methods, and will have the opportunity to work with local stakeholder groups. Furthermore, the student will network with a broader cohort of DTP students to receive core and generic skills training in a multidisciplinary context to maximise employability.

Funding Notes

This studentship is available to UK and other EU nationals and provides funding for tuition fees and stipend, subject to eligibility.

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject.


Application Procedure:

(1) Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Sciences;
(2) State name of the lead supervisor as the name of proposed supervisor;
(3) State QUADRAT DTP as intended source of funding;
(4) State the exact project title on the application form.

How good is research at Queen’s University Belfast in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 24.40

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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