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Resistance Evolution in Response to Emerging Wildlife Disease. PhD in Biosciences (NERC GW4 + DTP)

  • 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

Lead Supervisor:
Dr Barbara Tschirren, Department of Biosciences, Centre for Ecology and Conservation, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors:
Dr Sarah Perkins, School of Biosciences, Cardiff University
Dr Patricia Brekke, Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London
Dr Lars Raberg, Department of Biology, Lund University, Sweden

Location: University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9FE

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and 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 training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

- A stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
- Payment of university tuition fees;
- A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
- A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
- Travel and accommodation is covered for all compulsory DTP cohort events
- No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter

Project Background

Climate change drives the emergence of human and wildlife diseases. In Europe, the disease vector Ixodes ricinus (Sheep tick) is currently undergoing a range expansion to higher latitudes and elevations in response to climate warming. As a consequence, host populations that were previously disease-free have become exposed to ticks and tick-transmitted pathogens. This natural experiment offers the unique opportunity to track resistance evolution in action in natural host populations.

The most common tick-transmitted pathogen in Europe is Borrelia afzelii, which infects humans and causes Lyme disease. However, the pathogen’s natural hosts are small mammals such as the bank vole Myodes glareolus. Bank vole populations can be easily tracked in space and time, providing an excellent model system in which to test how disease and resistance evolve under climate change, and its ramifications for human and wildlife health.

Project Aims and Methods

The aim of this project is to understand how resistance evolves in bank vole populations in response to Borrelia emergence, and why and how variation in Borrelia resistance is maintained within and across populations. You will address these questions by combining field sampling of bank vole populations across gradients of Borrelia infection risk in Sweden and the United Kingdom with state-of-the-art molecular laboratory techniques.

Population genomics approaches will be used to track resistance evolution in action in newly exposed host populations. Furthermore, in-vitro immunological assays and patterns of gene expression in resistant and susceptible voles will be used to understand the mechanisms underlying Borrelia resistance, and the maintenance of its variation, in the wild. This integrative and multidisciplinary approach allows you to address a wide range of questions and you are encouraged to further develop the project according to your interests. The project includes secondments to Lund University, Sweden and the Zoological Society of London.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2020 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,009 per annum for 2019-20.


References / Background reading list

Cornetti et al. (2018) Small‐scale spatial variation in infection risk shapes the evolution of a Borrelia resistance gene in wild rodents. Molecular Ecology 27, 3515-3524.

Tschirren et al. (2013) Polymorphisms at the innate immune receptor TLR2 are associated with Borrelia infection in a wild rodent population. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 280(1759): 20130364.

Tschirren et al. (2012) Contrasting patterns of diversity and population differentiation at the innate immunity gene toll-like receptor 2 (TLR2) in two sympatric rodent species. Evolution, 66(3), 720-731.

Tschirren et al. (2011) Signatures of selection acting on the innate immunity gene Toll-like receptor 2 (TLR2) during the evolutionary history of rodents. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 24(6), 1232-1240.

de Villemereuil et al. (2019). Little adaptive potential of a threatened species. Current Biology, 29(5) 889-894.

Grueber et al. (2015) Toll-like receptor diversity in 10 threatened bird species: relationship with microsatellite heterozygosity. Conservation Genetics, 1-17

Ewen et al. (2009) Maternally invested carotenoids compensate costly ectoparasitism in the hihi. PNAS, 106, 12798-12802

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