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Sarah Worsley

Sarah Worsley

Sarah Worsley


ORCiD | LinkedIn


I am fascinated by the evolution of biological systems and, in particular, how social interactions between organisms arise and are maintained. I also have a keen interest in systems that are relevant to human health and enjoy communicating my work to the public.

I began my studies with a degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Oxford, graduating in 2014, where I studied a broad collection of topics ranging from plant biochemistry to social evolution. After my bachelors, I completed an MSc in Evolution, Ecology and Conservation at Imperial College London. My thesis focussed on the human gut microbiome, a bacterial community whose functioning and composition plays a fundamental role in maintaining human health. More specifically, I investigated how species diversity influenced the emergence of antibiotics resistance in simplified communities of commensal gut bacteria.

Current research

Phd title: Partner Choice: the chemical ecology of microbiomes

Many organisms maintain stable, mutually beneficial interactions with bacterial communities. However, a key question is how the host organism is able to maintain this relationship exclusively with beneficial bacteria, since cheats that take the benefits but do not reciprocate are expected to arise.

My PhD investigates this “Partner Choice” problem by studying South American leafcutter ants and the bacteria that reside on their cuticles. This beneficial bacterial community produces antibiotics which protect the fungal gardens, farmed by the ants, against invading pathogens. It is thought that to maintain a mutualistic relationship, the ant host provides public resources such that antibiotic producers are maintained at high abundance and suppress other bacteria that do not produce antibiotics.

My research will use a range of newly developed techniques including Stable Isotope Probing to track the flow of resources through the fungal-ant-bacterial chain. I will also be investigating known and novel antibiotics in vitro, but also on the surface of the ants using mass spectrometry imaging techniques established at the John Innes Centre ( ). The ant system is not only intriguing but a useful model, since the external nature of the microbiome makes it easy to manipulate. The findings are also likely to have important ramifications for the current antibiotic crisis.

Research group

Primary Supervisor: Dr Matthew Hutchings (UEA)

Secondary Supervisors: Prof Colin Murrell (UEA), Dr Doug Yu (UEA), Prof Barrie Wilkinson (John Innes Centre)


•    Michael Zola Prize (August 2012) Keble College University of Oxford, for outstanding performance in examinations.
•    Academic Scholarships awarded by the University of Oxford, for first-class results in September 2012 and 2013.
•    NERC Studentship 2015

Other activities:

Science communication: I have written science news articles for BANG! Science magazine, University of Oxford as well as biology articles for I-Science magazine, Imperial College London.