Unraveling the biology of symbiotic mutualisms in ants

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation

Primary Supervisor:

Lee Henry

School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, QMUL

Lee Henry's Profile Picture

Secondary Supervisor:

Yannick Wurm

School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, QMUL

Yannick Wurm's Profile Picture

Project Description:


Ants are among the most diverse and successful organisms on Earth. One of the secrets to their success is the mutualistic relationship they form with other organisms – they have mastered farming, herding insects like cattle and even culture bacteria for antibiotics. Recent studies have shown that certain ants carry symbiotic microbes in highly specialised cells, called bacteriocytes. The acquisition of these symbioses has led other groups of insects to incredible success, by allowing them to invade inaccessible habitats. Here we explore whether these intriguing symbioses are a major innovation that have helped ants dominate so many ecosystems.

This project will use the rich ecology within the Formicidae ants to disentangling how bacteriocyte symbioses originate, why they persist in some ants but not in others and what their role is in ant biology/ecology. We will test specific hypotheses using experimental and genomic studies in several ant genera know to harbour bacteriocyte symbionts.

Potential projects

o The impact of ant life history (e.g. herders, slavers) on symbiont acquisition and role of symbioses in eco-evolutionary dynamics

o Ant ecology and the loss of beneficial symbionts

o The role of symbionts in niche exploitation by invasive ants

o Genomics basis of symbiont function: reveal shared metabolic pathways, genome integration and the evolution of dependency

*Students are encouraged to develop their own ideas – Contact Dr. Henry directly to discuss


Experimental manipulations

Molecular evolution

Comparative genomics



Statistics (e.g. comparative phylogenetics)

**Technical skills developed will depend on the interests of the student

Policy Impact of Research:

It is crucial to understand the mechanisms that lead to the success of organisms, as it influences diversification and invasiveness. This project will help determine the role of symbionts in the spread and dominance of ants. It will also provide insight to the genomic basis of evolving dependency on microbes.

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