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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Host immune suppression as a key adaptation enabling bacterial symbioses

We are seeking applicants for the following PhD opportunity. The successful applicant will join a student cohort in Environment, Biodiversity and Genomics, training together, following an exciting programme designed to inspire the next generation of environmental experts, managers and leaders. They will be equipped to address some of the toughest challenges of our time.

Research environment

The School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences (SBBS) at Queen Mary is one of the UK’s elite research centres, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). We offer a multi-disciplinary research environment and have approximately 150 PhD students working on projects in the biological and psychological sciences. Our students have access to a variety of research facilities supported by experienced staff, as well as a range of student support services.

The successful applicant will enter a vibrant research environment, under the supervision of Dr Lee Henry. The lab is well equipped to carry out the proposed research with world-class facilities in genomics and molecular biology. The student will also have access to ample funds to facilitate the research through Dr. Henry's external funding (~2.5Million pounds to date), including a recently acquired BBSRC-NSF grant on this topic (1.04M pounds) that will support the students research. Dr. Henry current supervises 4 PhD students, a postdoctoral researcher, and a technician. He also has a second postdoctoral researcher joining the lab in March, who will work with the PhD student on complementary aspects of the host immunity project ensuring the students success. Dr. Henry has an outstanding record with student supervision with a focus on students generating high impact first authorship publications.

Dr Lee Henry is a Senior Lecturer (UK equivalent to Associate Professor) in Biology.

Training and development

Our PhD students become part of Queen Mary’s Doctoral College which provides training and development opportunities, advice on funding, and financial support for research. Our students also have access to a Researcher Development Programme designed to help recognise and develop key skills and attributes needed to effectively manage research, and to prepare and plan for the next stages of their career.

The PhD student will gain experience in advanced molecular techniques (e.g. RNAi & CRISPR), analyses of high-throughput data (e.g. bioinformatics of transcriptomic/genomic data), experimental and field techniques, and statistics (e.g. GLMM, comparative phylogenetics).

Project description

Symbiotic microbes play important roles in many aspects of plant and animal biology, such as nutrition, development and defense. Yet we still have a limited understanding of what shapes the evolution of these relationships, such as why one species hosts a symbiont while a sister species does not. A key hypothesis is that the fate of symbioses is determined by the host immune system.

Our pilot data suggests host immune suppression may be of central importance to the evolution of symbiotic relationships. However, it is currently unclear whether symbionts are suppressing host immunity in order to establish in hosts, or whether hosts evolved to reduce immune responses to facilitate symbiosis. Gaining a mechanistic understanding of how host immunity mediates symbioses is critical for understanding host-microbe evolution, but also for controlling insect pests of health and agriculture importance (e.g. aphids, mosquitoes) that rely on symbionts for survival.

The successful applicant will use insects as a model to rigorously test hypotheses on host immunity as a key mediator of symbiosis. This may include: Using gene ‘knock-outs’ (RNAi and CRISPR) to test whether immune genes influence the establishment of symbioses; Using transcriptomics to compare host immune responses against mutualistic versus pathogenic microbes; Compare virulent to avirulent symbionts to reveal the genomic basis of harmful traits in bacteria.

  • You will have access to large genetic databases, in-house live organisms, field research, and cutting-edge research facilitates to fuel your investigation.
  • You will gain experience of molecular/experimental biology, bioinformatics, and statistics.
  • You will be encouraged to develop your own ideas and hypotheses.


This studentship is open to students applying for China Scholarship Council funding. Queen Mary University of London has partnered with the China Scholarship Council (CSC) to offer a joint scholarship programme to enable Chinese students to study for a PhD programme at Queen Mary. Under the scheme, Queen Mary will provide scholarships to cover all tuition fees, whilst the CSC will provide living expenses for 4 years and one return flight ticket to successful applicants. 

Eligibility and applying

Applicants must:

  • Be Chinese students with a strong academic background.
  • Students must hold a PR Chinese passport.
  • Applicants can either be resident in China at the time of application or studying overseas. 
  • Students with prior experience of studying overseas (including in the UK) are eligible to apply. Chinese QMUL graduates/Masters’ students are therefore eligible for the scheme.

Please refer to the CSC website for full details on eligibility and conditions on the scholarship.

Applications are invited from candidates with, or expecting to be awarded, at least an upper-second class bachelors degree, or equivalent qualification, in biological or computational sciences (or similar). A masters degree is desirable, but not essential.

Applicants are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our English language requirements page for details.

The deadline for applications to Queen Mary is 30th January 2022. Applicants will need to complete an online application form by this date to be considered, including a CV, personal statement and qualifications. Shortlisted applicants will be invited for a formal interview by the project supervisor. Those who are successful in their application for our PhD programme will be issued with an offer letter which is conditional on securing a CSC scholarship (as well as any academic conditions still required to meet our entry requirements).

Once applicants have obtained their offer letter from Queen Mary they should then apply to CSC for the scholarship by the advertised deadline with the support of the project supervisor. For September 2022 entry, applicants must complete the CSC application on the CSC website between 10th March - 31st March 2022.

Only applicants who are successful in their application to CSC can be issued an unconditional offer and enrol on our PhD programme.

Apply Online


  • Jackson R, Henry LM, Wurm Y (2020). Evolution: The Legacy of Endosymbiosis in Ants. Current Biology 30:R1385-R1387.
  • Monnin D, Jackson R, Kiers ET, Bunker M, Ellers J, Henry LM (2020). Parallel Evolution in the Integration of a Co-obligate Aphid Symbiosis. Current Biology 30: R446-R448
  • Niepoth N, Ellers J, Henry LM (2018) . Symbiont interactions with non-native hosts limit the formation of new symbioses . BMC Evolutionary Biology vol. 18
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