Department of Biological and Medical Sciences

Butterfly evo-devo in a conservation context: How embryos respond to pesticides and immune challenges

  • Project Title: Butterfly evo-devo in a conservation context: How embryos respond to pesticides and immune challenges

    Director of Studies and main supervisor: Dr Casper J. Breuker

    Whether Project is: Competition Funded Project (EU and UK students only)

    Application deadline: 3rd January 2019

    Project Description:

    Over the course of their life cycle butterflies are exposed to a range of environmental factors, which act as both inducers of phenotypic variation as well as selective agents. In rapidly changing environments butterflies can be exposed to a range of environmental stressors, including; extreme weather events and general climatic conditions, pesticide use, habitat fragmentation and the exposure to novel pathogens. There is a need to understand how butterflies respond these (interacting) environmental challenges, particularly during their most vulnerable and least understood life stage, the egg stage. Our previous work has shown that butterfly maternal effect genes are likely to play a key role in the embryonic response, and that these genes often show sequence variability as well as unique duplications with subsequent functional diversification. In this project we will primarily focus on the innate immune response to pathogens, and test the interaction with pesticide exposure. We will conduct experiments across the entirety of embryogenesis, and examine up- and down-regulation of genes in response to interacting stressors and explore their mode of action on embryonic development. We predict that in the earliest stages of development the embryos rely on maternally provided protection, rapidly followed by protection provided by the extra-embryonic serosa. Recent work in our lab has shown, for a very early developmental time point, that the butterfly serosa is capable of mounting an immune response. As embryonic development progresses, we predict that the embryo will play a more active role in the immune response. To test for micro- and macro-evolutionary shifts in immune response during embryonic development, we will use a comparative approach, comparing different populations from a single species (Pararge aegeria), as well as comparing different species from divergent habitats. The PhD project will involve several techniques including butterfly rearing, DNA and RNA extraction and RNAseq The study will enhance our understanding of how butterflies respond to environmental challenges, whether they are natural or manmade, during their most vulnerable and least understood life stage.

    Faculty of Health and Life Sciences
    Department of Biological and Medical Sciences
    Eligibility: Home UK/EU applicants who must be permanently resident in UK/EU (or International by special exception)
    Duration: three years
    Start date: September 2019
    Value p.a.: Bursary equivalent to RCUK national minimum stipend plus fees (2018/19 bursary rate is £14,777)

    Please note only EU/UK nationals/permanent residents are eligible to apply for this studentship. Please do not apply if you are not a UK/EU national/permanent resident. If you are not sure if you are eligible please contact Research Administrator,

    There is an additional requirement to undertake up to 6 hours undergraduate teaching/week during semesters and to participate in a teaching skills course without further remuneration.

    For further information contact Dr Casper J. Breuker (

    Applicants should have (or be expecting) a first class or upper second class honours degree from a Higher Education Institution in the UK or acceptable equivalent qualification. EU Applicants must have a valid IELTS Academic test certificate with an overall minimum score of 7.0 and no score below 6.0 issued since 1st September 2016 by an approved test centre. We are prepared to consider alternative acceptable evidence of English Language ability.

    How to apply:

    Completed application forms should be emailed to together with a CV.