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Horizontal gene transfer in the evolution of insects: a genomic approach

Project Description

Research Environment

The School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary is one of the UK’s elite research centres, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). We offer a multi-disciplinary research environment and have approximately 160 PhD students working on projects in the biological, chemical and psychological sciences. 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 (~£1 million in the past ten years). Dr. Henry has an outstanding record with student supervision with a focus on students generating high impact first authorship publications.

Dr Lee Henry is a Senior Lecturer (UK equivalent to Associate Professor) in Biology. For 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 and attributes needed to effectively manage research, and to prepare and plan for the next stages of their career.

The PhD student will have access to large genetic database, field collected insect samples and live in-house organisms. They will gain experience in molecular techniques, bioinformatics, experimental/field biology, and statistics (e.g. GLMM, comparative phylogenetics).

Project Details

Horizontal gene transfer has played a major role in the evolution of bacteria, however, its importance in animals is less clear. Recent evidence suggests that insects have repeatedly acquired genes from symbiotic bacteria that have provided them with key adaptation that has led to their success. Examples of this include, the horizontal acquisition of genes for lignocellulose digestion that has led to herbivory in beetles, and toxin encoding genes that may underlie protection from natural enemies in aphids and vinegar flies. However, it is currently unclear how common the horizontal transfer of symbiont genes is across insect species, and in most cases whether the newly acquired genes actually provide insects with adaptive functions. It is crucial to understand the dynamics of horizontal gene transfer in insects as the acquisition of novel traits from microbes is transforming our view of how arthropods evolve. This is of particular important for insect pests as it may underlie their capacity to colonise new environments and resist efforts to control them.

The successful applicant will use several insect families (e.g. aphids, ants) as models to rigorously test hypotheses on horizontal gene transfer in the evolution of insects. This may include: using whole genome sequence data to explore horizontally acquired genes involved in defence and nutrition across phylogenetically diverse insect species; investigating gene expression profiles to determine gene activity; and performing functional assays to reveal whether horizontally acquired genes provide insects with novel adaptive functions.

• You will have access to large genetic databases, insect collections, in-house live organisms and cutting-edge research facilities to fuel your investigation.
• You will gain experience of molecular/experimental biology, comparative/metagenomics, bioinformatics, and statistics (e.g. comparative phylogenetics).
• You will be encouraged to develop your own ideas and hypotheses.


Applications are invited from candidates with, or expecting to be awarded, at least an upper-second class bachelors degree, or equivalent qualification, in biological or computational sciences (or similar). A masters degree 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:


Potential candidates may contact Dr Lee Henry with informal enquiries about the project ().

Formal applications must be submitted through our online form by the stated deadline and should include your CV, statement of purpose, previous degree certificates and transcripts, and two referees. Applicants are not required to write a research proposal to apply for this position.

The School of Biological and Chemical Sciences is committed to promoting diversity in science; we have been awarded an Athena Swan Bronze Award. We positively welcome applications from underrepresented groups.

Funding Notes

This studentship is open to applicants worldwide and is funded by a Queen Mary University of London Principal's Studentship. It will cover tuition fees, and provide an annual tax-free maintenance allowance for 3 years at the Research Council rate (£17,009 in 2019/20).


McKenna et al (2019) The evolution and genomic basis of beetle diversity. PNAS 116: 24729–24737

Verster et al (2019) Horizontal Transfer of Bacterial Cytolethal Distending Toxin B Genes to Insects. Mol. Biol. Evol. 36: 2105-2110.

Henry et al (2015) Insect life history and the evolution of bacterial mutualism. Ecol. Lett. 18:516-525.

How good is research at Queen Mary University of London in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 23.39

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

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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