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Understanding the metabolic impacts of acute exposure to food insecurity: a comparative approach

   Biosciences Institute

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  Dr M Bateson, Prof Warwick Dunn, Dr Oliver Shannon  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Food insecurity is a rapidly accelerating problem in the United Kingdom and other high-income countries. In February 2022, the Food Foundation published figures showing that 4.7 million adults in the UK now experience food insecurity, with 1 million reporting that they have had to go a whole day without eating. The current cost-of-living crisis means that this situation is likely to get worse. In addition to the acute hunger caused by lack of access to sufficient food, epidemiological studies suggest that exposure to food insecurity also has longer-term negative effects on health and wellbeing. Perhaps paradoxically, food insecurity is associated with an increased risk of obesity. It is also associated with increased poor physical and mental health and reduced longevity. Understanding whether food insecurity directly causes these problems, and if so, the mechanisms involved, would have important implications for both social policy and medicine.

The aim of this project is to identify and understand the biological mechanisms underpinning the direct effects of food insecurity. Contrary to common assumptions, our recent results suggest that food insecurity-induced fattening is unlikely to be primarily driven by increased energy intake. Instead, we hypothesise that exposure to food insecurity triggers behavioural and metabolic adaptations that divert energy that would normally be spent on somatic maintenance and repair into increased fat stores as insurance against starvation. We will test predicted metabolic changes arising from this model.

Cause and effect can only be definitively established by conducting randomised controlled experiments in which food insecurity is manipulated and the effects on participants are measured. Our intention is to conduct analogous experiments in both healthy human participants and an animal model. We have developed methods for manipulating the key feature of food insecurity, which is increased unpredictability in the timing of meals, in both free-living humans and our animal model. We will collect samples of biofluids, including blood, saliva and urine, and use state-of-the-art analytic methods to measure and identify all the metabolites present. We will compare changes in metabolite levels between control and food insecure conditions and use these changes to reconstruct the metabolic pathways that are up- or down-regulated under food insecurity. By identifying common pathways that are affected in different biofluids and across species, we will obtain a systems-level picture of how the body responds to food insecurity. The studentship will thus provide multi-disciplinary training in experimental design, human and animal research, metabolomics and data science.


Applications should be made by emailing [Email Address Removed] with:

·        a CV (including contact details of at least two academic (or other relevant) referees);

·        a covering letter – clearly stating your first choice project, and optionally 2nd ranked project, as well as including whatever additional information you feel is pertinent to your application; you may wish to indicate, for example, why you are particularly interested in the selected project(s) and at the selected University;

·        copies of your relevant undergraduate degree transcripts and certificates;

·        a copy of your IELTS or TOEFL English language certificate (where required);

·        a copy of your passport (photo page).

A GUIDE TO THE FORMAT REQUIRED FOR THE APPLICATION DOCUMENTS IS AVAILABLE AT Applications not meeting these criteria may be rejected.

In addition to the above items, please email a completed copy of the Additional Details Form (as a Word document) to [Email Address Removed]. A blank copy of this form can be found at:

Informal enquiries may be made to [Email Address Removed]

The deadline for all applications is 12noon on Monday 9th January 2023.


Funding Notes

Studentships are funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) for 4 years. Funding will cover tuition fees at the UK rate only, a Research Training and Support Grant (RTSG) and stipend. We aim to support the most outstanding applicants from outside the UK and are able to offer a limited number of bursaries that will enable full studentships to be awarded to international applicants. These full studentships will only be awarded to exceptional quality candidates, due to the competitive nature of this scheme.


Food Insecurity as a Driver of Obesity in Humans: The Insurance Hypothesis. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 40, no. e105 (2017): 1–53.
Food Insecurity Increases Energetic Efficiency Not Food Consumption: An Exploratory Study in European Starlings. PeerJ 9 (2021): e11541.
Food-Insecure Women Eat a Less Diverse Diet in a More Temporally Variable Way: Evidence from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2013-4. Journal of Obesity 2019 (2019): Article ID 7174058.
Procedures for large-scale metabolic profiling of serum and plasma using gas chromatography and liquid chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry. Nature Protocols 2011 6 (7), 1060-1083
Feasibility and acceptability of a multi-domain intervention to increase Mediterranean diet adherence and physical activity in older UK adults at risk of dementia: Protocol for the MedEx-UK randomised controlled trial. BMJ Open (2021)
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