Department of Biological and Medical Sciences

From genes to species: Investigating the contribution of evolutionary change in tartan to mating behaviour and reproductive isolation

  • Project Title: From genes to species: Investigating the contribution of evolutionary change in tartan to mating behaviour and reproductive isolation

    Director of Studies and main supervisor: Dr Maria Daniela Santos Nunes

    Opportunity to list 2nd and 3rd supervisors if you wish: Dr Saad Arif

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

    Application deadline: 3rd January 2019

    Project Description:

    The genetic basis underlying the vast diversity observed in animal male genitalia has eluded evolutionary research for decades. Recently we uncovered a gene that explains a large difference in organ size between species. We found that evolved mutations in Tartan, a leucine-rich transmembrane domain protein that mediates cell affinity, are responsible for the larger clasper size of fruit fly species Drosophila mauritiana relative to its sibling D. simulans.

    This project aims to understand the evolution of tartan (trn) in the context of male genital evolution. Specifically, in this project you will take a multidisciplinary approach, bridging behavioural genetics, high-resolution microscopy, machine-learning, neuroscience and evolutionary genomics, consisting of the following approaches:

    1. How the evolved genetic changes in trn affect mating behaviour and genital coupling in these species. This will include setting up and video recording high-throughput behavioural experiments and manual and automated measurements of standard behavioural parameters using tracking software as well as identification of new and atypical behaviours using machine-learning algorithms. It will also include the use of CT scans and SEM microscopy for time-series analysis of copulating pairs.
    2. The mechanisms through which these effects affect reproductive fitness. This will include the study of the neural circuitry regulating the female response to mating and how this is modified in flies mated to males carrying heterospecific alleles of trn.
    3. The role of selection in the evolution of this gene. This will include analysis of genomic data from populations of D. simulans and D. mauritiana, as well as direct tests of selection on the species-specific tartan alleles.
    4. The interaction of this gene with genes in other evolved regions underlying the divergence in male genitalia such as the pair-rule gene hairy and sneaky, a gene that lies less than 50 kb downstream of tartan and that is essential for sperm function.

    The results of this Project will provide fundamental insight into the mechanisms through which morphological changes affect behavioural phenotypes and the evolution of reproductive isolation between species and speciation more generally.

    An ideal candidate would have either a background or interest in one or more of the following: speciation, evolutionary genetics or genomics, behavioural genetics, Drosophila genetics, machine-learning.

    The Department of Biological and Medical Sciences at Oxford Brookes University provides a diverse and supportive research environment with particular strengths in Drosophila genetics and genomics, high-resolution microscopy and burgeoning number of researchers utilizing novel functional genomic approaches.

    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)
    Closing date: 3rd January 2019
    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 Maria Daniela Santos Nunes ( or Dr Saad Arif (

    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.