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ENV East Doctoral Training Partnership


Applications to the EnvEast Doctoral Training Partnership are now closed.

Below you can browse some of the PhD projects we have previously funded; if you would like to be informed when applications open, or if you have any questions about EnvEast and our application process, please email us.

Projects previously funded by EnvEast


Leafcutter ants and their antibiotic-producing bacteria (HUTCHINGS_UBIO15EE)

Project description

Scientific background

All plants and animals form stable interactions with beneficial bacteria that they acquire from the environment at some stage in their life cycle and this bacterial community is called its "microbiome". How a host assembles and maintains a beneficial microbiome is one of the most active research areas in biology and is the central question of our work. We are using the leafcutter ant Acromyrmex echinatior to try and understand how protective microbiomes form. The ants cut and feed leaves to a symbiotic fungus that they grow for food. They also house antibiotic-producing actinomycete bacteria on the surface of their bodies and use the antibiotics to protect themselves and their fungus against infection. The aim of this project is to understand how the leafcutter ant host selects antibiotic-producing bacteria out of all the bacteria available in the environment. Leafcutter ants are a good model for this because we can do experiments on their external microbiome but many other hosts have protective microbiomes to protect themselves against infection, including plant roots, so the results from this study will be widely applicable to other systems.

Research methodology

The successful applicant will visit Panama to collect leafcutter (A. echinatior) colonies. You will then use leading edge techniques to examine metabolite exchange between the host leafcutter ants and their microbiome. Specifically you will use stable isotope probing (SIP) to track the flow of 13C (heavy carbon) through the labelled leaves (from plants fed 13CO2) which will be provided as foraging material to the experimental ant colonies, to the fungus which eats the leaves, to the ants which eat the fungus and finally to the bacteria that live on the ants. This will tell us whether the ants are providing public resources, which all bacteria can use, or private resources, which only beneficial bacteria can use. Co-supervisor Prof Colin Murrell invented the SIP technique and his lab will provide full training. You will also examine the antibiotics being made by the bacteria that live on the ants. In collaboration with Barrie Wilkinson (co-supervisor) at the John Innes Centre, you will use advanced mass spectrometry to examine whole leafcutter worker ants and look at the most abundant (and presumably most important) antibiotics being produced on the surface of these ants. This technique will also reveal if the antibiotics have been labelled with the heavy carbon, thus showing direct metabolite exchange between host and bacteria.


Full training will be provided for both fieldwork and laboratory techniques by scientists who are world-leaders in their fields. Koos Boomsma, our collaborator in Copenhagen, leads the collecting trips in Panama each year. Hutchings will provide training in microbiology and molecular biology techniques, training in SIP will be provided by Murrell, and Wilkinson will provide training in mass spectrometry and natural product chemistry. This multidisciplinary project will therefore offer a broad set of skills, make you highly employable and will no doubt lead to high impact publications. We also place a broad emphasis on communicating our research to the general public, and this will form an important part of your training.

Person specification

We are looking for a highly motivated and enthusiastic individual who is serious about a career in science and who will thrive as part of a multidisciplinary team.

Shortlisted applicants will be invited to an interview day on either Thursday 12 or Friday 13 February 2015.


This project has been shortlisted for funding from the EnvEast NERC Doctoral Training Partnership. Successful candidates who meet RCUK's eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship. In most cases, UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award. The stipend for 2014/15 was £13,863 p.a.


Please note that this project is listed in the online application form as "HUTCHINGS_UBIO15EE - Partner choice: the chemical ecology of microbiomes".

We recommend you read our 'How to Apply' page before starting your application.


Prof J Colin Murrell, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia

Dr Doug Yu, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia

Prof Barrie Wilkinson, John Innes Centre

  • Start date October 2015
  • Programme PhD
  • Mode of Study Full-time
  • Studentship Length 3.5 years
Entry requirements
  • Minimum Entry Standard 2:1 Honours degree, or overseas equivalent