School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

The genomic basis of bacterial symbiosis in deep-sea annelid worms

A funded PhD position is available to start in September 2019.

Project description

Mutualistic relationships between bacteria and complex organisms have repeatedly evolved and this has allowed host organisms to exploit new environments and foods. One of the most extreme and fascinating cases of symbiosis in the animal kingdom is observed in annelid worms of the genus Riftia and Osedax, which are able to live in particularly extreme environments including deep sea hydrothermal vents and carcases thanks to bacteria from the environment that they acquire as juveniles. This ultimately induces a drastic developmental change where they degenerate their guts and rely entirely on the bacterial symbionts to produce the essential nutrients they require for survival in those hostile environments. Which cellular and genetic mechanisms control this bacterial symbiosis? How did these mechanisms evolve? How did its change contribute to animal evolution?

  • In this project you would rigorously answer these questions sequencing and comparing the genome of these symbiotic worms with their closest asymbiotic counterparts.
  • You would have access to a large genomic database, field collections and in-house live organisms to fuel your investigation.
  • You would gain experience of molecular techniques (nucleic acid extraction, next generation sequencing), bioinformatics (e.g. genome assembly, RNA-seq analyses, gene family evolution), and statistics.
  • You will be encouraged to develop your own ideas and hypotheses.

Supervisor information

Chema Martin

Lee Henry

Yannick Wurm


The studentship will cover UK/EU tuition fees and provide an annual tax-free maintenance allowance for 3 years at the Research Council rate (£17,009 in 2019/20).

Eligibility and applying

In a multidisciplinary project like this, candidates are unlikely to have a background in all disciplines involved.  The most important qualification is motivation, enthusiasm and that the project appeals to you. However, previous computational experience would be a plus. We can envisage strong candidates coming through a variety of routes including:

  • practical molecular biology
  • evolutionary theory and phylogenomics
  • computational biology

To apply, students should have a first class degree or have received a MSc in a relevant field (i.e. marine biology, evolutionary biology, bioinformatics) or are about to finish their MSc. Applicants from outside of the UK are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our entry requirements page for details.

Applications will remain open until a suitable candidate is found. Applicants are advised to contact Dr Chema Martin () as soon as possible with their CV to express an interest in this project.


  • Cavanaugh, C. M., Gardiner, S. L., Jones, M. L., Jannasch, H. W. & Waterbury, J. B. (1981) Prokaryotic Cells in the Hydrothermal Vent Tube Worm Riftia pachyptila Jones: Possible Chemoautotrophic Symbionts. Science 213, 340-342.

  • Rouse, G. W., Goffredi, S. K. & Vrijenhoek, R. C. (2004) Osedax: bone-eating marine worms with dwarf males. Science 305, 668-671.

  • Thornhill, D. J., Fielman, K. T., Santos, S. R. & Halanych, K. M. (2008) Siboglinid-bacteria endosymbiosis: A model system for studying symbiotic mechanisms. Commun Integr Biol 1, 163-166.

  • Hilario, A. et al. (2011) New perspectives on the ecology and evolution of siboglinid tubeworms. PLoS One 6, e16309.