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Genetic and environmental components of senescence in the Seychelles warbler

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  • Full or part time
    Dr Hannah Dugdale
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

One of the most profound physical and psychological challenges we all face is our deterioration with age - a process known as senescence. Individuals clearly age differently, but our understanding of why we differ remains limited. In particular, little is known about the asynchrony of senescence across traits (e.g. morphological, physiological, immunological, reproductive) within individuals, and the complex, interacting environmental and genetic factors that impact on senescence in natural populations. To devise better medical and veterinary treatments it is crucial to improve our understanding of the internal (cellular, genetic) and external (environmental) basis of individual differences in senescence. This will provide insight into why some individuals are less able to buffer against senescence, perhaps, for example, due to their genetic makeup (e.g. reduced resistance to oxidative damage) or because of the impact of a poor early environment on their development.

This PhD will investigate the relative impact of environmental and genetic factors on senescence using the model Seychelles warbler system. Seychelles warblers are subject to variable environmental effects and show considerable differential senescence. The student will have access to this exceptional study population and the associated long-term dataset and genetic pedigree, gaining skills in fieldwork, microscopy, genomics, quantitative genetics and statistics. For example, path analysis will be used determine the relationships between environmental and genetic effects on the senescence of multiple traits, while next-generation sequencing will provide genomic resources to infer inbreeding and determine its’ effect on senescence. Molecular and statistical skills are an advantage, but training will be provided. The student will benefit from interactions with all members of Seychelles Warbler Project (http://seychelles-warbler-project.group.shef.ac.uk) and a vibrant academic environment at the University of Leeds, including training programs through LeedsOmics (http://www.leedsomics.org).

The successful student will work with researchers at the Universities of Leeds, East Anglia, Sheffield and Groningen to investigate individual variation in senescence. The student will address the following fundamental questions in evolutionary biology:
1. To what extent do individuals differ in the onset and rate of the senescence of morphological, immunological, physiological and reproductive traits?
2. Within-individuals, is there synchrony of senescence across functionally similar traits?
3. What is the relative impact of genetic versus environmental effects on senescence?

This will improve our understanding of how and why some individuals live longer, healthier lives, and provide insight into mitigating senescence.

Applicants must hold a First Class Honours or Masters degree with a distinction in a relevant subject, and have a keen interest in molecular ecology and life-history evolution. Previous experience of bird ringing, fieldwork in harsh environments, molecular techniques, Access databases and statistics would be beneficial; however, excellent training will be provided (e.g. www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk/postgraduate/professionaldev.php). The student will be required to conduct fieldwork for a minimum of three seasons (up to 3 months per season).

The student will be supervised by Dr Hannah Dugdale (Leeds) and Prof David S Richardson (East Anglia), in collaboration with Prof Terry Burke (Sheffield) and Prof Jan Komdeur (Groningen).

Funding Notes

Applicants must contact the supervisor in the first instance. They may then be invited to apply online for a Leeds Post-Graduate Research Scholarship (https://leeds.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/centrally-funded-research-postgraduate-scholarships). The studentship covers fees and stipend (c.£14,296) for 3 years.

Three Scholarship schemes are available. They provide funding for International students (Leeds Doctoral Scholarships), EU or UK students (University Research Scholarships) or students from Yorkshire (Endowed Research Scholarships).

For more information, see: http://www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk/postgraduate/phdopportunities.php


Bebbington K, Spurgin LG, Fairfield EA, Dugdale HL, Komdeur J, Burke T & Richardson DS. 2016. Telomere length reveals cumulative individual and transgenerational inbreeding effects in a passerine bird. Molecular Ecology 25(12): 2949-2960

Edwards HA, Burke T, Dugdale HL (2017) Repeatable and heritable behavioural variation in a wild cooperative breeder. Behavioral Ecology, In press http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/beheco/arx013

Hadfield JD, Richardson DS & Burke T (2006) Towards unbiased parentage assignment: combining genetic, behavioural and spatial data in a Bayesian framework. Molecular Ecology, 15, 3715–3730.

Hammers M, Kingma SA, Bebbington K, van de Crommenacker J, Spurgin LG, Richardson DS, Burke T, Dugdale HL, Komdeur J (2015) Senescence in the wild: Insight from a long-term study on Seychelles warblers. Experimental Gerontology 71: 69–79

How good is research at University of Leeds in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 60.90

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