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The dynamics and drivers of horizontal gene transfer in soil bacterial communities

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  • Full or part time
    Dr J Hall
    Prof S Paterson
    Prof A Fenton
    Prof M Brockhurst
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Horizontal gene transfer is a powerful mechanism for bacterial evolution. By acquiring useful traits from their neighbours, bacteria can rapidly adapt to environmental change, demonstrated, for example, in the emergence of resistance to commonly-used antibiotics. The spread of genes to new hosts is facilitated by mobile genetic elements (MGEs) such as plasmids, and therefore revealing the patterns of transmission of such elements, and the factors promoting their exchange, represents a pressing practical concern. To do this, we require data describing MGE dynamics in diverse natural communities — for example the distribution of taxa carrying specific adaptive MGEs, the range of hosts into which these MGEs spread, and how these patterns change over time and under different ecological conditions — and to integrate this data with ecological theory. In this project we will combine theoretical and experimental approaches, including cutting-edge genomics, experimental evolution, and ecological models, to explore the networks of MGE transmission in bacterial communities.

The student will be trained in laboratory methods including microbiology, experimental evolution, and molecular biology, and in computational methods including bioinformatics and modelling. Background in any of these subjects would be useful, but more important are enthusiasm for microbial evolution and ecology, self-motivation, and the drive to develop an independent research project. Students will also develop general research skills such as scientific writing, presentation, literature reviewing, and statistical analysis. The project will be jointly based in the Universities of Liverpool and Sheffield as part of the ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership.

Applicants should generally have an upper second or first class degree in biological sciences or any other relevant field. Please get in touch by email if you have any questions about this project or your suitability for the position.

Funding Notes

Competitive funding of tuition fee, research costs and stipend (£14,777 tax-free, 2018-19) from the NERC Doctoral Training Partnership ACCE, View Website. ACCE – a collaboration between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, and York – is the only dedicated ecology/evolution/conservation Doctoral Training Partnership in the UK.

Applications (CV, letter of application, 2 referees) by email to [Email Address Removed], deadline: January 9 2019. Interviews in or after the week commencing: 11th February 2019. Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed for only one project from the ACCE partnership.

This project is also available to self-funded students. A fees bursary may be available.


Hall, JPJ, Williams, D, Paterson, S, Harrison, E, & Brockhurst, MA (2017). Positive selection inhibits gene mobilization and transfer in soil bacterial communities. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 1: 1348-1353.

Gomez, P, Paterson, S, De Meester, L, Liu, X, Lenzi, L, Sharma MD, McElroy, K, Buckling A (2016) Local adaptation of a bacterium is as important as its presence in structuring a natural microbial community. Nature Communications 7: 12453.

Hall JPJ, Wood AJ, Harrison E & Brockhurst MA (2016) Source–sink plasmid transfer dynamics maintain gene mobility in soil bacterial communities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113: 8260-8265.

Fenton, A., Streicker, D. G., Petchey, O. L., & Pedersen, A. B. (2015). Are All Hosts Created Equal? Partitioning Host Species Contributions to Parasite Persistence in Multihost Communities. The American Naturalist, 186: 610-622

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