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NERC GW4+ DTP PhD Studentship: The molecular basis and evolution of host manipulation by nematomorph parasites

Department of Biology & Biochemistry

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Dr Vicky Hunt No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP) for entry in October 2021.

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: Dr Vicky Hunt, University of Bath, Department of Biology & Biochemistry, Milner Centre for Evolution

Co-supervisor: Dr Eileen Harris, Natural History Museum


Nematomorpha (also known as Gordian worms or horsehair worms) are a phylum of parasites that infect invertebrates. To develop into adults and find a mate, the nematomorph worms must move from their host to an aquatic environment. They achieve this by manipulating the behaviour of the host, causing it to jump into water. We know very little about the mechanisms that parasites have evolved to manipulate host behaviour, particularly at a genetic and molecular level. No genome has ever been published for a member of this phylum and we only have limited knowledge about the distribution of nematomorphs within the UK. This project aims to understand the molecular and genomic biology underpinning host behaviour manipulation and to investigate the diversity of nematomorph worms in the UK.


There are two main objectives of this project:

(i) Identify the molecular toolkit used by nematomorph parasites to infect their host. We will culture nematomorphs in the laboratory. We will isolate secretions from the parasites and identify proteins (using mass spectrometry) and non-coding RNA (using RNAseq) important at different lifecycle stages. Proteins and small RNAs isolated at the insect-parasitic lifecycle stage will be further investigated and used in behavioural assays of the insect host to assess the ability of these secretions to alter host behaviour.

(ii) Investigate the diversity of nematomorphs in the UK. We will collect samples of nematomorphs from aquatic environments and invertebrates at different locations around the UK. Samples from each location will be used for either (a) microscopy to determine the species based on cuticle structure, or (b) DNA extraction for genomic and genetic investigation, followed by downstream phylogenetics analyses to understand diversity and evolution of nematomorphs in the UK.

The project involves both laboratory-based and computational work. There is scope for the student to direct the project towards the molecular, behavioural or evolutionary biology aspects of this project, depending on their interests.


Applicants for a studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree (or equivalent qualification). A master’s level qualification would also be advantageous. Applicants should have an interest in infection biology, parasitology and/or hot-parasite interactions.


Enquiries relating to the project should be directed to Dr Vicky Hunt, [Email Address Removed].

Enquiries relating to the application process should be directed to [Email Address Removed].

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.

If you have settled or pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme, please upload documentary evidence with your application.

More information on how to apply may be found here:

Funding Notes

Studentships cover tuition fees at the ‘Home’ level, research/training costs and a stipend (£15,285 p.a., 2020/21 rate) for 3.5 years.

Candidates normally eligible for 'Home' fees are:
UK nationals*
Irish nationals living in the UK/Ireland
Applicants with settled or pre-settled* status in the UK under the EU Settlement Scheme
Applicants with indefinite leave to enter/remain in the UK

* must have lived in the UK/EEA/Switzerland continuously since September 2018.

International applicants, not eligible for ‘Home’ fees, may apply and will be considered for a limited number of fee discounts equivalent to the difference between the ‘Home' and ‘Overseas’ tuition fees.


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