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Impact of environmental stressors on microbiota and health in a marine chordate

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Sunday, December 01, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

The gut microbiota - the complex community of bacteria, viruses and archaea with which we live - has an important impact on health, disease progression, lifespan and behaviour (Glendinning and Free 2014). It may even be a driver of coevolutionary change (McFall-Ngai et al 2013). How does the microbiota mediate these effects in the host? Do the impacts of environment-mediated change in the microbiota go beyond the parental generation to the next? These questions are best addressed in biological systems in which you can manipulate microbiotas, with rapid generation times and large numbers of offspring, with genomic resources and which are not too distant from wild populations.
Cephalochordates ("Amphioxus") are filter-feeding, marine invertebrate chordates, and are an ideal model for such studies. They have close evolutionary ties with vertebrates, but simpler genome architecture, gene regulation and anatomy (Marletaz et al 2018). Amphioxus is emerging as an important model for developmental biology, regeneration and ageing research (Bertrand and Escriva 2011; Somorjai 2017). Although amphioxus are currently found worldwide (Bertrand and Escriva 2011), different species and populations may be at varying levels of risk from environmental change and human stressors. At least three species of amphioxus can be artificially induced to spawn in the laboratory, and are thus suitable for embryological studies and microbiota manipulation.
During your PhD, you will characterise both environmental and gut microbiotas under several conditions in adult amphioxus using 16S rRNA gene metataxonomics, You will identify gene expression changes in these animals using RNA-seq, and evaluate the impact of microbiota change on development of embryos, from egg to larval stages. This research will help elucidate how the environment can affect important developmental traits in the next generation through changes in the microbiota. In future, this may permit engineering of microbiota and selection of host-microbiome associations to improve animal and human health, and contribute to our understanding of how the environment can impact populations and species through changes in microbiota.
This project will provide interdisciplinary training in cutting edge next generation sequencing technologies, bioinformatics analysis, developmental biology, microbiology, molecular biology,microscopy and imaging. In addition to training in wet laboratory methodologies and computation, the successful candidate will benefit from career and personal development opportunities at the University of St Andrews through CAPOD.

Please send informal enquiries to Dr. Ildiko Somorjai:
Lab webpages: OR AND

Funding Notes

Eligibility requirements: Upper second-class degree in Biology or a related area.
Funding: Fees and stipend is provided for 3.5 years.


McFall-Ngai et al (2013) Animals in a bacterial world, a new imperative for the life sciences. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 110: 3229-36.
Marletaz F et al (2018). Amphioxus functional genomics and the origins of vertebrate gene regulation. Nature, 564(7734), 64-70.
Somorjai IML (2017) Amphioxus regeneration: evolutionary and biomedical implications. Int. J. Dev. Biol. 61: 689-696.
Glendinning L & Free A (2014) Supraorganismal interactions in the human intestine. Front Cell Infect Microbiol 4: 47.
Bertrand S, Escriva H (2011) Evolutionary crossroads in developmental biology: amphioxus. Development. 138(22):4819-30.

How good is research at University of St Andrews in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 50.45

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

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