Evolutionary genomics of a major transition in evolution

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation

Primary Supervisor:

Seirian Sumner

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

Seirian Sumner's Profile Picture

Secondary Supervisor:

Yannick Wurm

School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, QMUL

Yannick Wurm's Profile Picture

Project Description:

Major evolutionary transitions describe the process by which biological complexity in the natural world arises; this includes the evolution of superorganismal societies made up of individual insects. Such transitions are characterised by division of labour, e.g. as worker/queen castes in insect societies. Recent analyses of insect societies suggest that independent origins of castes across different evolutionary transitions are regulated by the same set of shared genes – a conserved genetic toolkit for social complexity. However, analyses have focused on the most complex stages of social complexity, and thus we lack a test of this hypothesis across the different stages in the major transition to sociality. This matters because the underlying assumption that there is a shared genetic toolkit across the spectrum of sociality, irrespective of complexity, remained untested.

The PhD student will test this hypothesis using a vast dataset of new genomic data from a range of Vespid wasps, representing the full spectrum of social complexity in the major transition to superorganismality. This includes solitary wasps which represent the likely ancestors of sociality, simple group living species, species on the ‘cusp’ of superorganismality, and superorganismal vespines (hornets and yellowjackets).

This is primarily a computational project for which the genomic data already exist. The student will benefit from being hosted by two vibrant labs which specialise in sociogenomics studies; thus they will receive training in social evolutionary theory and cutting edge bioinformatics, including machine learning. Depending on the student’s interests there will also be the opportunity for experimental work, including behavioural and gene manipulations.

Policy Impact of Research:

This Project will generate important insights into the molecular basis of one of the most fundamental processes in the evolution of life. The outcomes are therefore of a fundamental, ‘blue-skies’ nature, generating basic information on the building blocks of the natural world, using a charismatic and ecologically important group of organisms.

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