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The social side of symbionts: exploring bidirectional links between the gut microbiome and social behaviour in mammals


   Department of Biology


About the Project

This project is part of the DPhil in Biology at the University of Oxford

Symbiotic microbial communities can have pervasive impacts on the biology of their hosts, and the diverse microbiomes that reside in the mammalian gut are no exception. Besides key roles in nutrition and pathogen defence, recent work has implicated the gut microbiome in shaping host behaviour. Of particular interest, the gut microbiome can affect mammalian social behaviour in various ways, including the modulation of scent-based social signals in species like hyenas, and through various physiological pathways collectively called the microbiome-gut-brain axis. What’s more, links between the gut microbiome and social behaviour are likely to operate in both directions, as research has shown how social contacts and the resulting transmission networks play an important role in shaping individual microbiomes. However, many gaps remain in our fundamental understanding of how gut microbes shape mammalian social behaviour and vice versa. While model systems like mice are revealing key mechanisms by which gut microbes can influence social behaviour under laboratory conditions, how these might play out in natural populations where microbiomes and host social interactions are far more variable, remains unknown.

Project aims

The overall aim is to explore how the mammalian gut microbiome shapes and is shaped by social behaviour, using house mice as a model system. This will involve using a combination of controlled experiments under laboratory conditions, and analyzing data and samples from an intensively monitored wild population of house mice on the island of Skokholm, Wales. Specific project aims can be finalized in discussion with the successful candidate, but potential aims are listed below:

  1. To examine the role of faecal microbial (scent) signals in communicating social information of relevance in natural populations, e.g. about social group, sex, sexual maturity and breeding partner suitability.
  2. To investigate whether naturally occurring variation in social behaviour within a wild population is influenced by the gut microbiome, and if so which microbes might be involved.
  3. To explore how patterns of social interaction in a wild population influence the acquisition of both beneficial gut microbes and potential pathogens, and thus explore how organisms may trade-off the benefits and costs of social interaction in terms of symbiont transmission.

This project is anticipated to use the following methods:

  1. controlled experiments in laboratory mice (e.g. simple behavioural tests that explore the propensity of animals to provide and respond to social stimuli)
  2. microbiome transplant experiments using germ-free laboratory mice
  3. fieldwork to sample and collect behavioural data from wild mice
  4. molecular work to characterise microbiomes and pathogenic infections
  5. computational analyses of detailed observational data from wild mice (e.g. social network analyses to explore relationships between social behaviour and symbiont transmission).

Dr Knowles will support the design and implementation of animal experiments, fieldwork, molecular work to characterise faecal microbiomes and infections, and statistical analyses. Dr Firth will provide mentoring in data handling and statistical analyses of social network data from wild populations in the context of symbiont transmission, and Dr Green will support the design and analyses of experiments investigating mouse behaviour and communication.

A willingness to work with mice is essential for this project, and experience working with small animals would be highly advantageous. No other specialized skills are required. Experience handling and analysing large datasets in the R programming environment, and fieldwork experience would be beneficial.

This project is part of the Ecology & Conservation theme in the Department of Biology.

Funding

This project is part of the DPhil in Biology programme, and is not a funded course at the University of Oxford, as such, students are expected to explore options for funding. However, we anticipate being able to offer around 6 full graduate scholarships to incoming DPhil Students in 2023-24

You will be automatically considered for the majority of Oxford scholarships, if you fulfil the eligibility criteria and submit your graduate application by 20 January 2023. Scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic achievement and potential to excel as a DPhil student. 

For further details about searching for funding as a graduate student visit the University’s dedicated Funding pages.

Eligibility

For full entry requirements and eligibility information, please see the main admissions page.

How to apply

The deadline for applications for 2023-2024 entry is midday 20 January 2023. We will continue to accept applications submitted after 20 January 2023, but these late applications will not be considered for scholarship funding.

You can find the admissions portal and further information about eligibility and the DPhil in Biology Programme at the University's graduate admissions page.


References

1. Sherwin, E., Bordenstein, S. R., Quinn, J. L., Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2019). Microbiota and the social brain. Science, 366(6465), eaar2016.
2. Davidson, Gabrielle L., Aura Raulo, and Sarah CL Knowles. Identifying microbiome-mediated behaviour in wild vertebrates. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 35.11 (2020): 972-980.
3. Raulo, A., Allen, B. E., Troitsky, T., Husby, A., Firth, J. A., Coulson, T., & Knowles, S. C. (2021). Social networks strongly predict the gut microbiota of wild mice. The ISME journal, 15(9), 2601-2613.

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