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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Supervisors: Nik Cunniffe (Plant Sciences) and Beverley Glover (Plant Sciences

Importance of the area of research:

A number of plant diseases are transmitted by pollinators.  However pollinator service is also often required for plants to reproduce: attractiveness to pollinators promotes reproduction, but also brings the plant into contact with disease.  The implications of this epidemiological-ecological dynamic are not well understood.  The range of many plant pathogens is increasing, caused by climate change and increased movement via trade and travel.  There is also a well-reported global decline in pollinator density. Understanding the dynamics and evolutionary implications of sexually-transmitted diseases in plants has therefore never been more important.

Project summary:

This project aims to understand the ecological and evolutionary pressures exerted on plants by pollinator-transmitted diseases.  Being attractive to pollinators promotes plant reproduction, particularly for obligate outcrossing species.  However, it also increases the risk of coming into contact with sexually-transmitted diseases. How flower attractiveness might respond to these contrasting pressures when there is pollinator-transmitted disease is not understood. Doing so requires techniques and insights from plant epidemiology, pollinator behavioural ecology, plant population dynamics and population genetics. In this project we will link these diverse areas via a mathematical modelling approach.

What the student will do:

The student will develop a mathematical models of the interaction between plant and pollinator populations over a single season, coupling transmission of disease to pollinator service. This model will be scaled-up to run over many seasons, and to represent population genetics, including plant genes that make flowers more or less attractive to pollinators in the model. Mathematical analysis and numerical simulation will be performed. Models will be rendered stochastic, to allow for natural variability, and by scaling-up to a metapopulation, will allow for spatial spread of disease, pollinators and plant genotypes. Where appropriate empirical data from existing studies will be used to parameterise and test the models. The framework of adaptive dynamics offers the possibility of understanding whether the plant population-or indeed the pollinator or pathogen populations-will branch into different species, allowing long-term population trajectories over evolutionary time to be predicted.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Groen, S.C., Jiang, S., Murphy, A.M., Cunniffe, N.J., Westwood, J.H., Davey, M.P., Bruce, T.J.A., Caulfield, J.C., Furzer, O.J., Reed, A., Robinson, S.I., Miller, E., Davis, C.N., Pickett, J.A., Whitney, H.M., Glover, B.J. and Carr, J.P. Virus infection of plants alters pollinator preference: a payback mechanism for susceptible hosts? PLoS Pathogens. 12:e1005906.

Thrall, P.H., Antonovics, J., Bever, J.D. 1997. Sexual transmission of disease and host mating systems: within-season reproductive success. American Naturalist. Vol. 149, pp 485-506.

Antonovics, J. 2005. Plant venereal diseases: insights from a messy metaphor. New Phytologist. Vol. 165, pp 71-80.

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project.

Other projects available from the Lead Supervisor can be viewed here.

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