Causes and consequences of microbiome variation in the fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)

Supervisors: Stuart PiertneyPaul Thompson

Project Description:

Microbiomes are increasingly recognised as having a major influence on their host’s physiology, health, reproduction, fitness, development and behaviour. Much of what we do know about their effects, however, comes from well-characterised human microbiomes or other laboratory model systems under controlled conditions. To examine properly how the so-called “hologenome” of host and microbiome combines and interacts to define an extended phenotype requires an understanding of the causes and consequences of microbiome diversity in non-model systems in natural populations and under varying environmental conditions.

This project will examine inter-relationships between genotype, diet, environment, health, reproduction and microbiome composition in the northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis. The project will centre on a well characterised population of fulmars on Eynhallow in the Orkney Islands, which has been the focus of long-term monitoring and sampling of marked breeding pairs since the 1950’s. The student will take blood, preen oil and cloacal samples to characterise microbiome and parasite communities using high-throughput DNA sequencing of the 16S mitochondrial DNA locus. This information will be coupled with existing tracking and monitoring data that have demonstrated marked individual differences in foraging environments and reproductive success. Together with new information on host genotype, these data will be used to address a number of interlinked questions, including: 1) How is microbiome composition affected by differences in diet associated with different patterns of foraging? 2) How is the microbiome affected by host genotype at key immune function loci such as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), interferons and toll-like receptors? 3) What is the interplay between gut parasite burden, microbiome composition and immunogenotype? 4) Do individuals utilise microbiome related odour cues to advertise genetic quality and/or parasite status to potential mates? 5) What is the heritability of microbiome communities, and is this mediated through genotypic or environmental effects?

Combined, these questions will provide novel insight into the causes of among-individual and among-family microbiome diversity, and the consequences this can have on individual health, performance and behaviour. This will be of immense value to a broad range of pure and applied disciplines ranging from medicine and agriculture to molecular physiology and ecosystem dynamics.

The project offers unique opportunities for a student to combine lab and field based research and gain  multidisciplinary training in state-of-the-art molecular genetic techniques (including high-throughput DNA sequencing using second (Illumina) and third (ON MinION) generation platforms), analytical chemistry, bioinformatics, statistical and evolutionary analyses, field skills and behavioural analysis.

If you wish to apply for this project, pleadse go to this link.