Symbiosis as an adaptation to changing environments

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Lee Henry

School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences, QMUL

Lee Henry's Profile Picture

Project Description:

The world is undergoing rapid environmental change due to increasing global temperatures and intensified land use. All animals are colonised by microbes that can both help and hinder adaptation to changing environments. This includes obligate symbionts, such as those found in corals and insects, that provide animals with essential resources but can make them sensitive to heat stress. In addition, numerous symbiotic relationships have been discovered that are not essential but can provide their host with significant benefits, and this is particularly true in insects. These facultative symbionts can provide insects with important adaptation, such as protection against heat stress or pesticide resistance allowing their host to invade new habitats or buffer against environmental change. Symbionts may therefore be crucial for helping insects adapt to increasing temperatures or integral to their proliferation as pests. However, the role of microbes in insect adaptation to environmental change has only been recognised recently.

The aim of this PhD project is to understand how symbionts help or hinder insect adaptation to fluctuating environments, such as heat stress, pesticide resistance, plant virus transmission, or attack from natural enemies. The exact details of the project and model system will be based on the student’s interest, but may include:

1) Investigating whether facultative symbionts act as a ‘horizontal gene pool’ – a reservoir of adaptations carried by symbionts that insects draw from to rapidly adapt to new environments.

2) Understanding how microbes that buffer against heat stress influence insect invasion of arid habitats and countries.

3) Determining the role of symbionts in pesticide resistance and/or disease transmission in globally important insect pests.

The student will work closely with the supervisor and other members of the research group.

**Students are encouraged to develop their own ideas**

Policy Impact of Research:

This project will reveal the importance for microbes for the survival of insects that are currently undergoing rapid declines (‘the insect apocalypse’), resulting in the loss of ecosystem services, and the proliferation of insect pests. Knowledge from this project will therefore be used to help develop practical solutions for managing insect biodiversity as well as pests in agriculture, forestry and those that vector major human diseases.

The student will learn a wide range of skills including modern molecular and genomics techniques while being part of a productive and supportive research team.

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