Conservation Genomics of Insect Pollinators

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Ian Barnes

Earth Sciences Department, NHM

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Secondary Supervisor:

Mark Thomas

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Project Description:

Declines in insect diversity are a world-wide concern, with the potential for significant ecological and economic impacts. However, our ability to measure the extent and rate of these declines is very limited. Current data are typically limited to broad statements about changes in number across broad taxonomic groups, and lack the sensitivity to establish how species are changing in response to land-use and climate change.
One of the most powerful ways to explore changes in insect diversity is to analyse genetic variation across the genomes of modern and historical specimens. Using a genomic approach, we have the potential to provide precise measurements of genetic load, identify evolutionarily significant units, to identify genetic adaptation to stress, and using new statistical approaches, to identify the specific stresses that drive adaptation.
In this project, we will recover DNA from several bumblebee (Bombus) species, a vital group of insect pollinators for a range of commercially important and wild plants in the UK. Samples will include field-collected material, and the extensive collections held at the NHM, from which we can develop a time series of samples. The resulting data will provide unique insights into the evolution of key species over the last 150 years, and provide a foundation for addressing food security and ecosystem challenges. There will be opportunities to conduct field collection with the NHM team, laboratory work, and state of the art data analyses, as well as working with several wider networks including the Darwin Tree of Life project, and Biodiversity Genomics Europe.

Policy Impact of Research:

Developing a better understanding of how insect pollinators are reacting to changes in their environment is central to UK agricultural and environmental strategies, and identifying which stressors impact survival and adaptation. In particular, the DEFRA National Pollinator Strategy includes “Strengthening the evidence base”, and “Sustaining pollinator health through research” as two priority areas.

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