Using genomic data of sponges to reveal patterns of genetic diversity and connectivity in the Mediterranean Sea

The aim of the project is to evaluate the effects of both biological and environmental factors on the geographic distribution of genetic variation of Atlanto-Mediterranean sponges.

The studentship is part of the INSPIRE Doctoral Training Partnerships, funded by NERC, and starts October 2020.

Apply for this course

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then apply via the INSPIRE Online Application Service.

Application deadline: 3 January 2020.


Understanding the genetic diversity and connectivity patterns of marine invertebrates and how they adapt to their local environments is vital to design conservation strategies. Sponges are crucial components of the benthic ecosystems both because of their abundance and the services they provide.

Sponges are among the most threatened species to global warming, especially in seas like the Mediterranean, where massive decimations of sponges have recently been reported in correlation with increments in seawater temperature. Given the important ecological role of sponges, such vast losses can have remarkable cascading effects on entire ecosystems.

In addition, given that all organisms rely on their genetic diversity to cope with changing environments, if that is reduced, the species’ adaptive potential is compromised, which could result in extinction.

The aim of the project is to evaluate the effects of both biological and environmental factors on the geographic distribution of genetic variation of Atlanto-Mediterranean sponges. The main goal is to understand whether gene flow exists across basins and how it varies depending on the reproductive strategy of the species (brooding vs. oviparous). Also, the student will assess the adaptation patterns at the genomic level (using SNP datasets) across the entire distribution of the species. 


  • Structure and connectivity: The student will use sample collections stored at NHM for two brooding species (Ircinia variabilis and I. fasciculata) and one oviparous species (Petrosia ficiformis), plus collect more samples. 10 populations per species (8 existing and 2 to be collected) will cover their entire distribution. Genome-reduced representation markers will be used to measure genetic diversity and structure using bioinformatic pipelines.
  • Local adaptation: The student will identify loci under selection, and test the correlation between their allele frequencies and matrices of environmental parameters (temperature, salinity, chlorophyll A), focusing on differences between Atlantic vs. Mediterranean locations, which have the most divergent conditions.
  • Hybridization in Ircinia spp.: The student will assess the frequency of hybridization to assess whether it increases genetic diversity, and whether it is behind specific adaptation patterns where it occurs.
  • Microbiomes and disease decimations in I. fasciculata: In a population collected before and after a massive death in Granada (Spain), the student will study pre-disease and surviving genotypes and their microbiomes, doing Amplicon sequencing of the 16S using MiSeq, to understand whether specific microbiome communities linked to certain genotypes are responsible of their resilience.

Supervision and training

The INSPIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners.

The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at the Natural History Museum. Specific training will include: (i) field-based surveys of subtidal invertebrates; (ii) extensive training in genomic laboratory techniques.; (iii) Bioinformatic and statistical analysis of genomic data.

The successful candidate will write scientific papers for highly ranked international journals and present research in international conferences/workshops. They will directly interface with policymakers like IUCN-Mediterranean, Biodiversity Foundation, and the Spanish Marine Protected Areas Network (RAMPE and MAGRAMA), via long-standing funding and science-policy projects.


Each INSPIRE project comes with a 3.5 year fully funded studentship for UK students and EU students who meet the RCUK eligibility criteria. The stipend is in line with RCUK stipend levels.

To be eligible for a full award (stipend and fees), a student must satisfy all of these conditions:

  • Settled status in the UK, meaning they have no restrictions on how long they can stay.
  • Been ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK for three years prior to the start of the grant. This means they must have been normally residing in the UK (apart from temporary or occasional absences).
  • Not been residing in the UK wholly or mainly for the purpose of full-time education. (This does not apply to UK or EU nationals.)

Minimum Academic Eligibility Criteria: 

  • BSc/MSci 2:1
  • and/or Masters (MSc or MRes) at Merit/Distinction level (>60%).
  • and/or evidence of significant relevant professional experience equivalent to Masters level.

How to apply

Applications are made through the University of Southampton's Online Application Form. The University has detailed guidance on how to apply.

In summary, please include:

  • A short statement of your research interests and rationale for your choice of project(s) - in the Personal Statement section of the application form
  • Curriculum vitae - giving details of your academic record and stating your research interests.
  • Names of two current academic referees - with an institutional email addresses in the Reference section of the application form. On submission of your online application your referees will be automatically emailed requesting they send a reference to us directly by email.
  • Academic transcripts and IELTS/TOEFL certificate if applicable.

As far as possible please upload all documents in pdf format.

General enquiries should be directed to the  GSNOCS (Graduate School of the National Oceanography Centre Southampton) team on

The deadline for applications is 3 January 2020.

Any questions ?

You are encouraged to contact potential supervisors by email to discuss project-specific aspects of the proposed research at an early stage.

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Dr Ana Riesgo Gil


Natural History Museum

Main supervisor: Dr Ana Riesgo Gil

University of Southampton

Co-supervisor: Dr Marc Rius

University of North Carolina, Wilmington, USA

Co-supervisor: Dr Susanna López-Legentil

Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain

Co-supervisor: Dr Sergio Taboada Moreno


Bell, JJ et al. 2015. Global conservation status of sponges.
Conserv Biol 29, 42-53.

Garrabou, J et al. 2009. Mass mortality in Northwestern Mediterranean rocky benthic communities: effects of the 2003 heat wave.
Glob Change Biol 15, 1090-1103.

Interdisciplinary Southampton Partnership for Investigators Researching the Environment

This is a joint PhD training partnership between the Natural History Museum and INSPIRE, a NERC doctoral training partnership (DTP) creating an innovative multi-disciplinary experience for the effective training of future leaders in environmental science, engineering, technology development, business, and policy.

Funded by