Evolution in action: using museum DNA to understand disease resistance in island birds

This project will investigate how hosts adapt to pathogens in small and fragmented populations.

The studentship is part of the ARIES doctoral training partnership, funded by NERC and starts October 2019.

Apply for this course

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then apply though the University of East Anglia's online application system.

Application deadline: 8 January 2019


Many natural populations are facing a 'double threat' of reduced genetic diversity and new pathogen challenges. Therefore, understanding how hosts adapt to pathogens in small and fragmented populations has important ramifications for conservation, epidemiology and evolution.

However, we still lack fundamental understanding of the mechanisms that enable natural populations to respond and adapt to changing pathogen pressures.

Next-generation sequencing methods combined with temporal sampling of wild populations now make it possible to undertake an exciting, powerful and timely investigation of these questions. 


You will join a dynamic research programme assessing adaptation within island populations of Berthelot’s pipit, and have full access to large-scale genetic, ecological and pathogen data.

You will use museum specimens (1820s), alongside previously collected samples (2006) and fieldwork in Macaronesia (2020), to quantify spatio-temporal immunogenomic variation among divergent populations known to differ in pathogen load.

Genomes from contemporary samples will allow you to identify loci that show high or divergent variation across populations, and sequence capture will then be used to screen these loci across samples spanning 200 years. You will then use population genetic modelling to investigate the evolutionary forces driving immunogenomic variation over space and time.

Specific questions can be developed and prioritized according to your own interests but the work revolves around the following areas:

  • Identifying spatially and temporally divergent loci between populations
  • Investigating the role of mutational mechanisms in enabling change at divergent loci
  • Assessing the importance of pathogen-mediated selection and genetic drift in genetic change in small populations
  • Testing the role of different selection mechanisms in maintaining immunogenetic variation. 


You will join a thriving, world class research group at UEA, spend at least three months at IPNA, (the case partner in Tenerife) and collaborate with the Natural History Museum, London. 

You will gain: 

  • Molecular laboratory, bioinformatics and data analysis skills. 
  • Ecological fieldwork experience 
  • Understanding of evolutionary biology and conservation genetics 
  • Training in critical thinking, scientific writing and the public communication of science 
  • Extensive training to increase generic scientific skills and enhance employability

Person specification 

Degree in biology/zoology/related subject. Field, molecular and/or analytical skills preferred.


ARIES studentships are available to UK and EU applicants only.

Residency rules apply. In general, UK and EU nationals who will have been resident in the UK for three years or more at the time when their PhD begins will be eligible for a full ARIES studentship. UK and EU nationals who have been resident outside the UK but within the EU during the qualifying period will usually be eligible for a ‘fees only’ studentship, which pays research costs and tuition fees but gives no help with living expenses.

In case of uncertainty, the planned university of registration should be contacted for eligibility advice; or the ARIES administrators.

All applicants need to comply with the registered university's English-language requirements.

Applicants should have obtained or be about to obtain a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a master's degree. Applicants with a minimum Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

How to apply

Applications for the PhD are processed through the University's of East Anglia's online application service.

Applications will need to be supported by:

  • A full CV
  • A statement that gives (for example) details of the candidate’s interest in the studentship project, and any skills etc they can bring to it
  • Electronic copies of certificate(s) and transcript(s) for all relevant qualifications (degrees etc)
  • Two references, of which at least one must be an academic reference.

The application deadline is 23:59 on 8 January 2019.

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Prof David Richardson


Armstrong, C Richardson DS, Spurgin LG (2018) Genomic associations with bill length and disease reveal drift and selection across island bird populations. Evolution Letters 2 (1), 22-36

Gonzalez-Quevedo C, Davies RG Phillips KP, Spurgin LG and Richardson DS. (2016), Landscape-scale variation in an anthropogenic factor shapes immune gene variation within a wild population. Mol Ecol, 25: 4234–4246 

Spurgin LG, Illera JC, Jorgensen TH, Dawson DA, Richardson DS (2014) Genetic and phenotypic divergence in an island bird: isolation by distance, by colonization or by adaptation? Mol. Ecol. 23: 1028-1039

Spurgin LG. & Richardson DS. (2010) How pathogens drive genetic diversity: MHC, mechanisms and misunderstandings, PRSB, 277, 979–988

Spurgin LG, Wright DJ, Velde M, Collar NJ, Komdeur J, Burke T, Richardson DS (2014) Museum DNA reveals the demographic history of the endangered Seychelles warbler. Evolutionary Applications 7(9):1134-1143

ARIES Doctoral Training Partnership

The ARIES (Advanced Research and Innovation in the Environmental Sciences) doctoral training partnership draws together expertise from five universities and nine research centres, as well as over forty other research-users.

Funded by 

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