Big data evolutionary genomics of social insects.

This project is available from the academic year 2021/22 onwards.

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation

Primary Supervisor:

Yannick Wurm

School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, QMUL

Yannick Wurm's Profile Picture

Secondary Supervisor:

Stephen Rossiter

School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, QMUL

Stephen Rossiter's Profile Picture

Project Description:

We have two main lines of research.

Genetics of social behaviour. Social animals exhibit a broad range of behaviors, and some theoretical understanding exists of the tradeoffs between different forms of social organisation. However, we know little about the the genes and processes underpinning social organisation or how it evolves. The diversity of social behaviors across the 20,000 species of ants represents a unique opportunity to empirically understand the mechanisms and tradeoffs involved in social change. We use highly molecular approaches, including genomics and bioinformatics but also potentially behavioural or field work to address major questions about social evolution. We aim to generate exciting new insights into genes and processes underpinning a major social transition, with implications on understanding evolution of complex phenotypes.

Molecular diagnostics for pollinator health. Effective pollination is crucial for the stability of the ecosystem, and for crop productivity. Governments had approved what they thought were “safe” levels of pesticides. But in fact, the pesticides are generic neurotoxins: they reduce the learning abilities, dexterity, foraging ability and ultimately survival of pollinators who consume nectar or pollen. As a result, several commonly used pesticides have now been banned. However, the problem may just have been shifted: we lack a good way of understanding whether authorised pesticides are better.Thus there is an urgent need for approaches that are more powerful/sensitive. Building on the recent 50,000-fold drop in the cost of DNA sequence analysis, we are developing high-resolution molecular diagnostics approaches which are poised to fundamentally change for the better how research on pesticides is performed and the mechanisms through which such crop chemicals are evaluated.

Policy Impact of Research:

Wild and managed bees provide pollination services essential for ecosystem stability and crop yields, while ants are among the world’s most highly invasive species.

Understanding social insects are affected by environmental challenges from pesticides to social upheaval is essential for understanding social evolution, and for reducing unintended effects of pesticides.

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