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Incest and insects: How plant sex affects herbivores and pollinators


Project Description

A long-standing paradigm in ecology and evolutionary biology suggests that the immense diversity of insects has been driven by adaptation to the defences of the plants they feed on. These defences include toxins and other secondary metabolites, which can be highly variable between plant species, between populations of the same species, and even between leaves on the same plant. Chemical defences not only influence leaf chewing herbivores, but also pollinating insects (e.g., bees) which harvest pollen and nectar. Understanding what drives defence variation is important, particularly as populations of insects decline worldwide as a result of habitat loss, pollution and climate change. We are seeking an enthusiastic and motivated student with interests in ecology and/or evolutionary biology to help understand the interactions of plants, herbivores and pollinators.

The project focuses broadly on the role of plant sex in insect-plant interactions. Compared to animals, plants exhibit an extraordinary diversity of reproductive systems, ranging from obligate outcrossing (mating with non-relatives) to complete self-fertilisation, to asexual reproduction. These different mating systems have important consequences for plant population genetics and evolution. In the short term, self-fertilisation and other forms of inbreeding (i.e., “incest”) cause the expression of deleterious recessive alleles, which can limit a plant’s ability to defend against herbivory. Past work by the group has shown that inbreeding alters plant chemistry and thereby influences herbivore fitness. However, the mechanisms for this effect on insects, and particularly effects on pollinators, remain unknown.

Specifically, the studentship will examine three themes, using the wild tomato, Solanum habrochaites, as an experimental system:

1) Effects of plant inbreeding on the chemically mediated interactions of herbivores and pollinators.
2) Effects of plant inbreeding on insect immunity and life history.
3) Role of plant inbreeding for rates of insect adaptation.

There is scope for taking individual, population, or macroevolutionary approaches, and working in both the field and lab, and with plants, insect herbivores and pollinators, depending on the student’s background and interests. As an interdisciplinary project, the student will have the opportunity to gain a wide range of quantitative, analytical and field-based skills in behavioural ecology, chemical ecology, metabolomics, insect immunology, plant ecology, entomology and evolutionary genetics, also depending on interest. Skill development and training will be tailored to the student’s needs and career plans. A background in ecology, evolutionary biology, genetics, molecular biology or a related discipline is expected, but applicants with different backgrounds are encouraged to apply. Interested students are welcome to direct informal inquiries to Dr Stuart Campbell ().

The successful student will join two highly interdisciplinary and collaborative research groups at Sheffield studying a wide range of problems in ecology and evolutionary biology, using insects and plants as study systems: the Campbell Group (http://stuartcampbell-evoeco.staff.shef.ac.uk) and the Siva-Jothy Group (https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/aps/staff-and-students/acadstaff/siva-jothy). The Dept of Animal & Plant Sciences provides a supportive environment and has extensive state-of-the-art infrastructure relevant to the project.

Science Graduate School
As a PhD student in one of the science departments at the University of Sheffield, you’ll be part of the Science Graduate School. You’ll get access to training opportunities designed to support your career development by helping you gain professional skills that are essential in all areas of science. You’ll be able to learn how to recognise good research and research behaviour, improve your communication abilities and experience the breadth of technologies that are used in academia, industry and many related careers. Visit http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/sgs to learn more.

Funding Notes

Fully funded studentships cover: (i) a stipend at the UKRI rate (£15,009 per annum for 2019-2020), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees. Studentship(s) are available to UK and EU students who meet the UK residency requirements.
This PhD project is part of the NERC funded Doctoral Training Partnership “ACCE” (Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment View Website. ACCE is a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, York, CEH, and NHM.
Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place in the w/c 10th February 2020.

References

Relevant publications:
Johnson, M.T.J., Campbell, S.A. and Barrett, S.C.H. (2016) Coevolution of plant reproduction and defense against herbivores. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 46: 191-213
Campbell, S.A., et al. (2013) Plant chemistry underlies herbivore-mediated inbreeding depression in nature. Ecology Letters 16: 252-260.

How good is research at University of Sheffield in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 44.90

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

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