Hard-wired for success? Unravelling genomic signatures in pollinators


Hard-wired for success? Unravelling genomic signatures in pollinators


Project Description


Dr Mairi Knight, School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth

Prof Andrew Bourke, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia

Dr Wilfried Haerty, The Earlham Institute

Dr Jon Ellis, School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth



Many pollinator species, recognised as essential for ecosystem function, are undergoing rapid declines. One recent exception is the ‘Tree Bumblebee’ Bombus hypnorum: expanding its range into and across the UK in <20 years, it is now one of our most common species.

Building on previous work from the supervisory team, and in collaboration with the Earlham Institute, this project will investigate key genomic differences between this and other bumblebee (Bombus) species to substantially improve our understanding of the factors contributing to its success, along with the declines of others. The project’s focus is a genomic comparison of Bombus species from within the UK and continental Europe. Initial work has identified genomic regions of interest in B. hypnorum that may be indicative of its ability to adapt to anthropogenically altered landscapes. However, current data are preliminary and lack essential phylogenetic comparison.



This is a timely and exciting opportunity to generate a highly novel, and substantial, genomic dataset to test hypotheses as to whether the observed genomic differences are unique to B. hypnorum, or shared among Bombus species (some evidence suggests elevated resilience in the wider Pyrobombus sub-genus). In addition to fulfilling the specific aims, the data generated will offer the student significant scope to guide the project’s further direction through characterisation of genomic signatures and differences across this important pollinator group.


The project will equip the successful student with state-of-the-art genomic techniques as well as bioinformatic and modelling skills that are highly transferable and increasingly essential across a wide range of academic and applied biological disciplines. The student will also gain important soft skills (e.g. communication, team working, problem solving). He/she will be based in Plymouth, spending short periods at the other Institutions as relevant.

Person Specification

The successful candidate will have a biology-based degree, an academic interest in evolutionary ecology, and be enthusiastic about pursuing a laboratory- and computer-based project. Ideally, he/she will have some basic molecular ecology experience (e.g. DNA extraction, PCR) and interest in genetic and evolutionary analysis. Experience of genome sequencing and bioinformatics is not essential as full training will be provided.


  • 1. Huml JV, Ellis JS, Lloyd K, Benefer CM, Kiernan M, Brown MJF, Knight ME (in revision) Bucking the trend of pollinator decline: genetic variation, multiple colonization waves and possible anthropogenically-induced selection in an expanding pollinator species.
  • 2. Crowther LP, Wright DJ, Richardson DS, Carvell C, Bourke AFG (2019) Spatial ecology of a range-expanding bumble bee pollinator. Ecology and Evolution 9: 986-997.
  • 3. Johnson RN...Haerty W, et al (2018) Adaptation and conservation insights from the koala genome. Nature Genetics 50, 1102-1111.
  • 4. Theodorou P, Radzeviciute R, Kahnt B, Soro A, Grosse I, Paxton RJ (2018) Genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphism scan suggests adaptation to urbanization in an important pollinator, the red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius L.). Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 285, 20172806.
  • 5. Arbetman MP, Gleiser G, Morales CL, Williams P, Aizen MA (2017) Global decline of bumblebees is phylogenetically structured and inversely related to species range size and pathogen incidence. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 284, 20170204.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, and will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award.
  • Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses in the subject area (see https://www.aries-dtp.ac.uk/supervisors/additional-funding/).
  • This studentship will start on 1st October 2020, and the closing date for applications is 23:59 on 15th January 2020.
  • Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 18/19 February 2020.
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor.
  • Please note that the joint NERC-ESRC ARIES-SeNSS studentship projects have different deadlines and funding arrangements. For full details please visit https://senss-dtp.ac.uk/aries-senss-joint-studentship, or contact SeNSS.dtp@uea.ac.uk.

Studentship Open for Applications

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