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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Dr Lee Henry


Senior Lecturer

Telephone: +44 (0)20 7882 3610
Room Number: Room 5.04, Fogg Building


Research Interests:

Our research aims to understand how cooperative relationships between hosts and symbiotic microbes evolve, and what the consequences of these relationships are for the ecology and evolution of their animal hosts. A central theme to our research is to understand symbiotic interactions from the molecular level to the macro-evolutionary scale. To address these topics, we combine theoretical predictions from ecology and evolution with large-scale empirical tests, using the latest molecular and experimental techniques – including evolutionary genetics, genomics, comparative methods, theoretical modelling, and laboratory in vivo experiments. 

Our group currently focuses on three main areas:

Beneficial microbes in host adaptation 

Symbiotic microbes are extremely common in eukaryotes and play important roles in the biology of their hosts. Many hosts rely on obligate symbionts to synthesise nutrients absent in their diets or perform other essential functions. In addition to these permanent symbioses, a large number of facultative associations have been discovered where a symbiont is not essential for host survival but can provide significant benefits under certain ecological conditions, such as by protecting hosts from pathogens or helping them exploit resources. 

Facultative species represent relatively recent symbiotic unions that are only found in some host populations and different symbiont isolates typically vary in the degree they benefit their host. We use this natural variation in symbiont frequency and benefits they provide to hosts to help explain how symbioses evolve, and why they tend to form with certain types of hosts but not with others. 

Our aim is to understand the role of symbiotic microbes in the adaptation and diversification of hosts. Using aphids and their facultative symbionts as a model system we explore the evolutionary forces and mechanisms that underlie host-microbe mutualisms. Currently we are investigating the hypothesis that facultative symbionts function as a ‘horizontal gene pool’ that is shared between insect species. This has important implications for the transfer of adaptive traits between host species that could allow for rapid evolution to new environments. 

Evolutionary transition in bacterial symbioses 

The evolution of obligate bacterial symbiosis is a fundamental process that has shaped all life on earth. Novel symbiotic unions have resulted in some of the most important evolutionary transitions including the origins of the eukaryotic cell, the mitochondria and chloroplast. However, we currently know little about what promotes the stability of these relationships. The goal of this research is to understand why certain bacterial isolates remain promiscuous and continue to horizontally transfer between host species where as others become “domesticated” and form stable relationships with their hosts. To address this topic we are explore factors that correlated with transitions in symbiotic relationships across tree of life and then test our theories in laboratory and field studies. In addition, we are using a new multispecies study system to better understand how symbionts and hosts respond to the early stages of forming new symbiotic partnerships. 

The structure and function of insect microbiomes 

Recent research has shown that the composition of symbiotic microbes an insect carries (i.e. its microbiome) is important for host growth, reproduction, immunity, behaviour and in the vectoring of some of the most important diseases in agriculture and health. But despite the importance of the microbiome, we still know little about host environmental stresses impact the composition of microbes different insect species carry, and what the consequences of these changes are for insect biology. 

We are using cross-taxonomic comparisons to better understand what factors influence the composition of microbes that insects harbor. We then use this information to test hypothesis on how changes in the microbiome impact ecological interactions within insect communities.

Research department


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