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Understanding the rules of life ‘on the edge’: systems biology of Antarctic insects

Primary Supervisor: Dr Scott Hayward, School of Biosciences

Secondary supervisor(s): Professor John Colbourne and Professor Alicia Hidalgo

British Antarctic Survey project partners: Prof Pete Convey (PC) and Dr Melody Clark (MC)

PhD project title: Understanding the rules of life ‘on the edge’: systems biology of Antarctic insects

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

 Project outline:

This project builds on an existing research grant with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), as well as partners in the USA, Chile and France. It will employ state of the art techniques to undertake comparative genomic, transcriptomic and physiological studies of Antarctic insect species, as well as temperate model insect systems (Drosophila) to investigate neurophysiological adaptations underpinning life in extreme environments (in particular clock mechanisms and neuronal responses to stress).

Antarctica has been isolated from the other Southern Hemisphere continents for at least 28 million years (Myr). While climate models suggest all terrestrial species were wiped out during the last glacial maximum (LGM ~20 000 years BP), an increasing body of biological evidence depicts evolutionary phylogenies separated by many millions of years [1]. Some of the most compelling evidence comes from Antarctic insects, e.g. the flightless midge, Belgica antarctica,which is the southernmost insect and the largest permanent free-living terrestrial animal in Antarctica. It is the only insect endemic to the continent, and divergence dates obtained from sequencing ribosomal RNA indicate 49 Myr separation from its closely related/sister midge species that is endemic to sub-Antarctic South Georgia, Eretmoptera murphyi [1]. Thus, rather than being recent colonists that were pre-adapted to the extreme Antarctic environment, these species have potentially been evolving unique adaptations in complete isolation for almost 30 million years.

The circadian biology of polar species can often be quite different from their temperate counterparts due to such dramatic seasonal transitions in day length [2]. The neurophysiology of polar insects must also be specially adapted to deal with prolonged periods of chronic cold, hypoxia, desiccation and UV radiation, as well as very short windows for development. Investigating adaptations to extremes can provide great insight into key mechanisms underpinning these processes.

Comparative genomics provides an incredibly powerful tool to understand these evolutionary adaptations and the recently sequenced genome of B. antarctica was found to be just 99 Mb, making it one of the smallest insect genomes [3]. We have now also sequenced the genome of E. murphyi, and our current research grant provides an opportunity to sequence the genomes of several other midge species. Comparing Antarctic insect genomes will enable us to identify different (and common) evolutionary trajectories within the region. Genomic, transcriptomic and physiological comparisons with model temperate insect systems, such as Drosophila, then provide and incredibly powerful tool [4] to identify uniquely polar adaptations – particularly in clock mechanisms and neural responses to stress, which are very well characterised in flies [5].

References/Further reading:

  1. Allegrucci et al. (2012) Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 106: 258–274.
  2. Kobelkova et al. (2015) J. Insect Physiol. 81: 90-96.
  3. Kelly et al. (2014) Nat. Comm. 5:4611.
  4. Hayward (2014) Curr. Op. Insect Sci. 4: 35-41.
  5. Noreen et al. (2018) Gene 648: 106-114.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Understanding the Rules of Life: Neuroscience and Behaviour

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

The student will have access to internationally leading scientists in the UK (UoB and BAS), USA, France and Chile providing specialist training in genomics, transcriptomics and bioinformatic analysis, as well as neurophysiological research techniques and polar field training. Techniques and facilities associated with the project include:

  1. It is anticipated this PhD project will involve at least one Antarctic field season.
  2. Training in next generation sequencing (NGS) and RNAseq using an Illumina HiSeq 2500 platform.
  3. Access to state of the art controlled environment facilities and stress physiology equipment.
  4. The use of imaging facilities to investigate nervous system structure and function.
  5. Bioinformatic training for comparative genomics and transcriptomic data analysis.

Contact: Dr Scott Hayward, University of Birmingham