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The cost of being well-defended: How leaf herbivores make flowers stink and what plants can do about it

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Wednesday, January 08, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Plants use a diverse array of traits to repel or kill pests and pathogens. Following attack, a sophisticated hormonal signaling system regulates the production of defensive metabolites, allowing plants to fine-tune their responses to specific enemies and environments.

These induced responses are a classic example of phenotypic plasticity, and are generally assumed to be beneficial. However, recent work by our group and others has shown that attack by leaf herbivores can also cause upregulation of secondary metabolites in flowers, which in turn disrupt pollinator visitation and reduce fruit set. Co-occurrence of defensive metabolites in leaves and flowers represents a conflict for plants, which must balance defence and pollination. How different species reconcile effective defence and pollination is an important question at the interface of fundamental and applied ecology, particularly as habitats become increasingly fragmented and populations of pollinating insects decline – but the phenomenon remains poorly understood. We are investigating the occurrence, mechanisms and significance of this conflict in both wild and crop species.

We are seeking a student to pursue an interdisciplinary PhD that will investigate the mechanisms linking defence against herbivores/pathogens and reproduction, with scope to expand to include studies of insect behaviour and the evolution of phenotypic plasticity. Our work is interdisciplinary, involving plant metabolomics, genomics and fieldwork, and there is flexibility to tailor the project based on the candidate’s background and interests. Examples of questions that could be addressed include: What flower traits are induced by leaf herbivory, and how do these impact pollinator behaviour? What genes underlie variation in induced flower responses? How do species differ in the costs and benefits of induced responses?

This position would be well-suited to a student who is enthusiastic about ecology, plant molecular biology, entomology, chemical ecology, or evolutionary biology. Prospective candidates are encouraged to direct informal inquiries to Dr Stuart Campbell () for details on the project.

Skill development and training will be tailored to the student’s interests and career plans, and could include a wide range of quantitative, analytical and/or field-based skills in behavioural ecology, chemical ecology, metabolomics, insect immunology, plant ecology, entomology and/or evolutionary genetics). The student will be based in the Campbell Lab, in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield (, with opportunities for overseas fieldwork in South America and Africa. The Department of Animal and Plant Sciences is one of the UK’s top departments for organismal biology, with recent multi-million pound investment in state-of-the-art metabolomics and molecular instrumentation and controlled environment facilities.

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 to learn more.

Funding Notes

This is a fully-funded studentship, and covers: (i) a stipend at the UKRI rate (£15,009 per annum for 2019-2020), (ii) tuition fees, (iii) research costs. Studentship(s) are available to UK and EU students who meet the UK residency requirements.

Application forms should be accompanied by a CV and a 1-page (max) description of your research interests and experience. Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place in the w/c 10th February 2020.


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. (2015) Ecological mechanisms for the coevolution of mating systems and defence. New Phytologist 205:1047-1053

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)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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