Ecology and Evolution PhD Opportunities at the University of Leeds

I’m delighted to announce a suite of additional PhD projects in the School of Biology at the University of Leeds (scheme details are here).  These are in addition to the dozen or so competitively-funded projects through our NERC DTP, so please do check there as well if you are interested.  Most titles are indicative of the broad research area, but there will usually be a great deal of flexibility in the nature of the project depending on the interests of the student.  The deadline for all projects is Thursday 29th January 2015, and applicants will need to have submitted a research degree application form (see our “How to apply” page) and be in receipt of a student ID number prior to application for the scheme. Briefly, the titles are:

  • The Evolution of Plant Form
  • Marine microbial processes and interactions
  • Improving piglet survival and subsequent performance
  • Managing soil plant processes to enhance the sustainable intensification of agriculture
  • Emerging Infectious Diseases
  • Continental trends in, and drivers of, the spread of European aquatic invasive species
  • Biomimicry, biophilia, and urban design solutions
  • Identifying and investigating factors which improve sow performance in Irish pig herds

See the project summaries below for more details.

Project Title: The Evolution of Plant Form

The past two decades have seen tremendous progress in our understand of plant
development as molecular genetics have been applied to discover the underlying mechanisms in model plants, especially Arabidopsis thaliana. More recently, advances including genome sequencing have made it possible to broaden this study to alternative plants giving an evolutionary perspective and the opportunity to ask questions about the evolution of plant form, the earliest evolutionary innovations during the conquest of the land and the steps taken to achieve the variety of plants that we rely on today. You will take an evo-devo approach using molecular approaches to address these essential questions about the evolution of shape in the plant kingdom.

Contact: Prof Brendan Davies,

Project Title: Marine microbial processes and interactions

Ocean ecosystems play an important role in global nutrient cycles, with consequences for carbon sequestration and fisheries, yet remarkably little is known of the microbial players that dominate oceanic nutrient flows. Through a combination of field sampling, laboratory microcosm experiments and modelling, this studentship would assess the functional roles of multiple marine bacteria (separately and in interaction) in carbon fluxes and other ecosystem processes. Dynamic tests of the role of microbial interactions in determining Redfield ratios could be a potential application. Evolutionary experiments could be included to test how changing the set of interacting organisms affects the selective pressures on each. The project would provide an excellent grounding in microbial ecology, and would contribute to the understanding of global ecosystem processes.

Contact: Prof Ian Hope:

Project Title: Improving piglet survival and subsequent performance

Improved pig productivity seeks to simultaneously improve productivity, efficiency, environmental impact and animal health and welfare. Great strides have recently been made at farm level in increasing productivity through increased litter size. Modern sow genotypes are hyper prolific , producing an average of 15 or more live born piglets per litter. The optimum litter size is claimed to be in excess of 20 piglets born per litter by the world’s leading pig breeding companies who continue to concentrate on increasing litter size as a key breeding goal. Total herd feed efficiency is improved as litter size increases but not without some significant negatively impacting traits. The increase in litter size has been accompanied by a reduction in individual piglet birthweight, increasing mortality, reduced viability and reduced subsequent growth rate to slaughter creating welfare and economic problems. One key factor appears to be the ability of each piglet to receive adequate colostrum intake within the first 24h after birth, this has become increasingly important with the major drive to reduce antibiotic use in pig production. Little is known of the factors which influence colostrum production and the factors which affect colostrum intake by piglets. The aim of this PhD is to develop mechanisms to overcome the now commonly seen problems associated with high prolificacy with an emphasis on understanding colostrum production in the sow and factors affecting piglet intake of colostrum.

Contact: Prof Helen Miller,

Project Title: Managing soil plant processes to enhance the sustainable intensification of agriculture

Increasingly erratic weather patterns is increasing the variability of crop growth in the UK and beyond, at a time when there is a global need for producing more food per unit area with an improved environmental footprint. Most arable soils have low levels of carbon and biodiversity, and poor soil structure, all of which makes them prone to waterlogging and drought. Therefore, one route to enhancing the resilience of UK crop production is to enhance soil structure and function whilst maintaining profitable crop production. The approach is to explore how broad changes to crop management (cultivation, choice of crops, introduction of mycorrhizae) influence soil properties using high-frequency soil moisture and other data, how these changes influence crop growth and productivity, and how such changes can impact on overall productivity, environmental impact and profitability. This project will complement on-going research that is addressing methods of enhancing function, undertaken jointly with the Universities of York and Sheffield and the Department of Geography here at Leeds, and using soil moisture sensor arrays designed and built at the University of Manchester.

Contact: Prof Les Firbank,

Project Title: Emerging Infectious Diseases

The distribution and incidence of many pathogens is increasing, driven by human activities in combination with global climate and ecological change, leading to new emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) affecting vertebrate, invertebrate and plant species. EIDs pose many critical threats not just for human health, but also risks to food security where they affect species of importance for agriculture and aquaculture. As well as direct health and welfare impacts, such EIDs can cause extreme economic disruption amounting to billions of pounds in mature economies and have devastating consequences for developing countries and subsistence agriculture. A key challenge in infectious disease biology is to understand the processes which drive the emergence, spread and evolution of pathogens – such knowledge is fundamental to developing effective biosecurity policy, frameworks for predicting the emergence and impacts of disease outbreaks, and designing mitigation approaches. In this project, you will explore disease emergence and evolution. According to your research interests, the studentship could involve one of the following:

How do the diversity of hosts and their microbiota affect the risk of wildlife disease emergence? Pathogens and their hosts live in complex communities and feedback between diversity and disease is complex and contentious. Furthermore pathogens potentially interact in many ways with the broad microbiota of the host organism. The student may use one or more approaches (laboratory experiments, field experiments and theoretical models) to explore these questions, focusing on wildlife diseases such as chytrid disease, crayfish plague.

Evolutionary genetics of insect vectors. The increased availability of genomic data on insect vectors provides an opportunity for detailed investigation of their population genetics and genomics. The student will use mosquito genomic data to address a range of questions such as the importance of genomic structural variation for evolution, and the identification of genomic regions under natural or anthropogenic selection.

Contact: Dr Simon Goodman,

Project Title: Continental trends in, and drivers of, the spread of European aquatic invasive species

Invasive Alien Species (IAS) cost the UK ~£1.7bn pa and drive biodiversity loss and environmental change. Aquatic ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to invasions owing to their connectivity as well as anthropogenic activities such as aquaculture, fishing and transport. For example, zebra mussels block water pipes; salmon lice damage fish stocks; killer shrimp reduce biodiversity. Forthcoming EU legislation requires the management of IAS. In this project, you will evaluate the variability in the impacts of invasive species across Europe and develop an evidence base for management methods. In particular, according to your particular research interests, the studentship could involve: an experimental approach to impacts of invasives, distributional modelling, biosecurity and invasive species, urban freshwaters as a source of invasive species, investigations of the contribution of wildfowl to the spread of invasives or phylogeography of European invasive species.

Contact: Dr Alison Dunn,

Project Title: Biomimicry, biophilia, and urban design solutions

Biomimicry is the mimicking of biological entities.  This is achieved by imitating the forms, functions, processes, materials and systems found in nature, be it drawing upon a local ecosystem for new urban developments, through to investigation of cellular movements to provide solutions in the medical industry. Examples of the practice include Velcro (inspired by seed burrs), architecture (mimicking the air-flow regulation of mammalian lungs), and anti-bacterial materials (inspired by the dermal denticles of shark skin). This research project will seek to resolve design challenges within the built environments using knowledge derived from the whole spectrum of biological organisation. You will work in a cross-disciplinary setting to provide the link between engineering, urbanism, and biology and ecology.

The exact topic and method of research is open with the above fields to allow for greater creativity and innovation of the research project.

Contact: Dr Chris Hassall,

Project Title: Identifying and investigating factors which improve sow performance in Irish pig herds

Sow output in Ireland is below that of more efficient pig producing countries. If an Irish 500 sow unit could increase output to that achieved in The Netherlands (26.5 pigs/sow/year), net profit p.a. would increase by €35,650. However, an increase in prolificacy is often accompanied by an increase in the number of low birth weight, weak, unviable piglets. If these piglets survive then their performance is often significantly reduced, and they can create additional herd management challenges. As such, research is required to reduce the proportion of these low birth weight piglets and also to identify strategies to optimise their performance prior to weaning. Such improvements will help the Irish pig herd improve sow prolificacy in a sustainable manner. This studentship is part of a large-scale research project being conducted between the Teagasc, Moorepark, AFBI Hillsborough and Leeds research sites. The overall aim is to identify nutritional and management practices for sows and piglets which improve output, viability and overall performance. The successful candidate will initially use existing data sources to identify farm factors promoting high sow output. Sow nutritional experimentation will also be conducted to investigate the effect of specific micro nutrients on sow and piglet performance. Therefore the work programme will involve management and analysis of large datasets as well as animal work.

Contact: Prof Helen Miller,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s