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NERC E4 Social and transgenerational effects of parasitism: potential impact in a stored product pest

  • Full or part time
    Dr E Cunningham
    Prof N Colegrave
  • Application Deadline
    Thursday, January 09, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Interested individuals must follow the "how to apply" link on the Geosciences E4 Doctoral Training Partnership web page: http://www.ed.ac.uk/e4-dtp/how-to-apply

This project will investigate the impact of infection on host and non-host members of a population across subsequent generations. What impact might these have in the biological control of a stored product pest?

Project background
Environmental variation, including the environment created by maternal and paternal effects, can have a major impact on offspring traits across generations. This transgenerational epi-genetic effects may have both positive and negative effects. In the context of infection and disease, for example, maternal immunity may both protect and block the development of the offspring’s immune system.

This project aims to examine how infection affects reproductive investment and life-history trade-offs and the subsequent transgenerational impact of infection via sex-specific effects of parasitism on sons and daughters. It will use the bean beetle, C. maculatus as a model organism: C. maculatus is a major of stored products in all but one continent and is responsible for considerable economic loss on a worldwide scale. It is also a key model organism in research due to their short generation time, sexual dimorphism, life-history and the ease at which their natural environment can be mimicked in the lab.

Our initial work has focused on parasitism with a natural parasite of insects, fungal agents that are also a candidate for biological control. Our data suggests infection reduces longevity but that females may shift resources to early reproduction and increase her egg laying rate. Such fecundity compensation could be an undesirable effect for a pest control strategy. Females may also alter allocation levels to offspring – what consequences would this have for the reproductive potential of surviving sons and daughters. Infected individuals may also decrease levels of competition within a population: what effect might this have on uninfected individuals in a population and overall levels of reproduction in the longer term?

Research questions
How does infection impact on host traits in different populations in different environments? Which type of traits are most likely to be affected by infection at different life stages? How does infection impact across generations? What are the social consequences of infection and how do effects via non-hosts combine to impact at the population level?

The project will involve designing and implementing controlled experiments to examine the impact of infection and immune challenge on different individuals in a population – both hosts, non-hosts and their family members. Populations can be created that mimic the pests species’ natural environment and conditions can be manipulated to mimic different environmental conditions. There is scope to measure the impact of infection on a range of life history traits at both individual and population level and to break these down into different components depending on the students area of interest eg egg provisioning, ejaculate components, physiological measures. Multi-generation experiments are easily conducted in the proposed system as is the tracking of individuals or populations over time.

Year 1: Research training, data management and statistical training, animal handling, lab and molecular techniques, planning and completion of first experinets

Year 2: Completion of transgenerational experiments, initial conference presentations, analysis and writing

Year 3: Completion of final experiments and lab work, PIP.

Year 4: Write up and option to visit lab abroad to pursue collaborative opportunities

A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills including experimental design, animal handling and husbandry and parasitological lab based skills as well as training in data management and analysis in a range of statistical packages including R. The project also provides the student the opportunity to interact with a number of bodies involved with biological control and pest management while addressing questions of fundamental biological interest to evolutionary ecologists.

Students need at least an upper 2.1 degree in a related biological subject and a first class undergraduate degree or MSc in ecology or evolution would be an advantage. All training will be provided but any related experience would be an advantage.

Funding Notes

This project is eligible for the E4 Doctoral Training Partnership. The E4 projects are currently available for full NERC studentship funding which is competitive by interview AND AVAILABLE ONLY TO UK citizens and to EU citizens who have worked or studied in the UK for the previous 3 years.
For application details see View Website
Further details here - View Website


Leventhal, Gabriel E.; Duenner, Robert P.; Barribeau, Seth M. (2014) Delayed Virulence and Limited Costs Promote Fecundity Compensation upon Infection. AMERICAN NATURALIST Volume: 183 Issue: 4 Pages: 480-493

Granroth-Wilding, HMV, Burthe S, Lewis S, Hepborn, K, Takahashi, EA, Newell, M, Daunt, F, Cunningham EJA (2015) Indirect effects of parasitism: costs of infection to other individuals can be greater than direct costs borne by the host. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282 (1811) Article Number: 20150602

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