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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

The genomic basis of host-symbiont dependency


Organisms across the tree of life form partnerships with microbes for protection, metabolic and nutrition. In some cases, host and symbiont become so tightly associated that dependency evolves and the two organisms integrate both physically and genomically. Dependency on microbes is particularly prevalent among insects. These acquisitions have led many groups of insect to great success by allowing them to use otherwise unavailable resources and invade inaccessible habitats. Here we explore how dependency on microbes evolves, and how genomes combine to produce the novel functions that have allowed insects to dominate so many habitats.

In this project we will use the obligate symbionts of several insect families to unravel the genomic basis of how dependency evolves. We will explore the early stages of genomic integration in hosts that have recently evolved dependency on microbes; reveal the function of symbionts through shared metabolic pathways; and determine what aspects of host ecology influences the gain and loss of symbionts.

  • In this project you will use the symbionts of ants and aphids to test hypotheses on the evolution of dependency on microbes.
  • You will have access to large genetic databases, insect collections, in-house live organisms and cutting-edge facilitates to conduct research in genomics and molecular genetics (e.g. fluorescent in situ hybridization)
  • You will gain experience of genomic techniques, bioinformatics, molecular/experimental biology, and statistics (e.g. comparative phylogenetics).
  • You will be encouraged to develop your own ideas and hypotheses.

Eligibility requirements

Applications are invited from candidates with, or expecting to be awarded, at least an upper-second class bachelors degree (or equivalent qualification) in biological sciences (or similar). International students are required to provide evidence of their proficiency in English language skills. Applicants from outside of the UK are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our entry requirements page for details:

Candidates are welcome to apply from a wide range of disciplines although a background in biology is recommended. The most important qualification is motivation and that the project appeals to you. We can envisage strong candidates coming through various routes including:

  • bioinformatics
  • practical molecular biology
  • evolutionary theory

The applicant must obtain an external source of funding.


Please complete an online application form via the following link:

If your application is successful a conditional offer dependant of obtaining external funding will be made and Dr Henry will support you with in your application for funding.

For informal requests, do not hesitate to contact me at


This project is open to applicants intending to apply for external funding (e.g. China Scholarship Council, CONACYT, Commonwealth Scholarships). Please see our Fees and Funding page for details of Queen Mary's international funding partners.

If you intend to apply for China Scholarship Council funding, the deadline to apply to Queen Mary is 12th January 2020.


  • Fisher RM, Henry LM, Cornwallis CK, Kiers ET and SA West (2017). The evolution of host-symbiont dependence. Nature Communications vol. 8
  • Henry LM, Maiden MJC, Ferrari J and HCJ Godfray (2015). Insect life history and the evolution of bacterial mutualism. Ecology Letters 18:516-25
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