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NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship: Evolution of social genes across landscapes

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 06, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the Universities of Bath, Bristol and Exeter and Cardiff University plus five prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad multi-disciplinary training, designed to produce tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science.


Lead Supervisor: Jason Wolf, University of Bath, Milner Centre for Evolution
Co-Supervisor: Alex Hayward, University of Exeter, Centre for Ecology and Conservation
Co-Supervisor: Sam Sheppard, University of Bath, Milner Centre for Evolution


The social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum (‘Dicty’) lives as single celled individuals in the soil, where they consume bacteria and undergo vegetative growth. However, when food becomes scarce, they aggregate to form a multicellular slug that migrates and forms a fruiting body composed of a dead stalk that holds aloft a sorus of viable spores. This process of aggregation and developmental differentiation represents a social stage where cells cooperate to form a functioning fruiting body and compete for space in the sporehead. Consequently, Dicty have been used as an ecological model to study predation and as an evolutionary model to study sociality. We have pursued these areas of research by sequencing large numbers of Dicty strains collected from natural populations and found that ‘social genes’ (which are involved in aspects of the social stage) are more variable and evolve faster than ‘non-social genes’. We will build on this observation by analysing a series of questions about the evolutionary and ecological processes that have shaped the composition and patterns of evolution across the Dicty genome.


The project aims are hierarchical and flexible, proving many opportunities for student led avenues of inquiry. The goal is to first characterise patterns of gene gain and loss (including the role of transposable elements as disruptors of gene function and facilitators of evolutionary change) across lineages sampled from natural populations. We will give a special focus to the degree to which social and non-social genes differ in their evolutionary properties. For this we will utilise existing sequences, but will complement our existing data sets by acquiring new genome sequence data as needed. This aspect is especially flexible and can allow students to pursue their own directions as the project progresses. We will also apply a number of fine-scale tools that can dissect the independent evolutionary histories of different genes and genome regions to understand the mosaic nature of evolutionary and ecological processes shaping the genome. Finally, we will relate these evolutionary changes to our understanding of gene function, with the potential to validate predictions using large panels of gene knockout strains.


Applicants for a studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an area appropriate to the skills requirements of the project.

This project will apply modern and cutting-edge approaches from population genetics and bioinformatics. Therefore, some familiarity with computer programming, bioinformatics, and statistics will be beneficial. However, the student will be provided with appropriate training as needed and therefore, existing knowledge and skills in these areas are not essential.


Enquiries relating to the project should be directed to Prof Jason Wolf, .

Enquiries relating to the application process should be directed to

Candidates should apply formally using the relevant University of Bath online application form:

When completing the form, please state in the ‘Finance’ section that you wish to be considered for NERC GW4+ DTP funding and quote the project title and lead supervisor’s name in the ‘Your research interests’ section. If you wish, you may apply for more than one project within the same application but you should submit a separate personal statement for each one.

More information on how to apply may be found here:

Anticipated start date: 28 September 2020.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ DTP funding is for 3.5 years and is open to UK and EU applicants who have been resident in the UK since September 2017.

A studentship will provide UK/EU tuition fees, maintenance in line with the UKRI Doctoral stipend rate (£15,009 per annum, 2019/20 rate) and a generous budget for research expenses and training.

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

FTE Category A staff submitted: 24.50

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

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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