Honours Projects: Genetics

Academics in Genetics

A/Professor Suhelen Egan

Dr Lee Ann Rollins

Professor Bill Sherwin

Professor Torsten Thomas

Below are the current projects on offer in Genetics. Supervisors don't always advertise specific projects, but will happily discuss options with prospective students. If there is a research area or supervisor you might like to pursue, email the relevant academics and ask! They love to talk science.

Project Title: Using historical Australian starlings to investigate rapid evolution of morphology during invasion

Supervisor: Dr Lee Ann Rollins

Synopsis: Invasive species are a global concern due to their negative impacts on the economy and local ecosystems. However, well documented invasions provide a useful system in which to pose biologically interesting questions regarding short time scale evolution of species. The global pest European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) was introduced into Australia’s south-eastern states in the 1860’s and have since greatly expanded their range. Previous research on multiple introduced starling populations has demonstrated that their morphology has undergone subtle shifts following colonisation. Research is currently ongoing to characterise the genetic change this species has undergone since their initial Australian colonisation through comparison of genetic variation in historical starling samples to contemporary genetic variation across Australia.

Aims: Preserved Australian starlings from the 1860’s onwards are located throughout Australia’s museums; in this project, their morphology will be measured and compared to modern day Australian starlings. The morphological changes this species has undergone since colonisation can then be interpreted, alongside available genetic data, to characterise the phenotypic evidence of evolution in this species since its introduction to Australia.

Benefits to student:

This project will involve travel to museums across Australia. In addition, the data will be integrated with existing morphometrics into a database available to the global starling community, enabling the student to forge connections with starling researchers world-wide. All students in our group are encouraged and supported to publish their research in international scientific journals.

Project Title: How do activity levels affect immune function gene expression in cane toads?

Supervisor: Dr Lee Ann Rollins

Synposis: After introduction to a new environment, species may encounter abiotic and biotic factors with which they have not evolved; however, some introductions are remarkably successful. The ‘enemy release hypothesis’ (ERH) proposes that upon introduction, invasive species leave behind some of the natural pathogens and parasites with which they have co-evolved; this may then allow invaders to redirect defence resources towards characteristics that enable them to thrive in their new environment. Studies on the 85-year old cane toad (Rhinella marina) invasion across Northern Australia have revealed rapid evolution of many phenotypic traits (e.g. immune function) along the introduced range. ERH predicts that actively invading range-edge toads would be expected to down-regulate costly immune function (e.g. inflammation) when compared to those in the range-core. Interestingly, our differential gene expression analysis revealed a curvilinear trend along the invasion gradient, with cane toads in the oldest and newest populations having up-regulated expression of inflammation-related genes, while individuals from intermediate populations exhibit down-regulation of inflammation genes. Although these results appear to contradict ERH predictions, there is a possible confound: the higher levels of activity in range-edge vs. range-core toads may also increase expression of inflammation genes, thereby causing an up-regulation of such genes in the range-edge toads relative to intermediate toads.

Aims: This honours project is designed to disentangle the effects of ERH with those of activity levels by investigating the relationship between activity levels in toads and their immune gene expression levels.

Benefits to student: This project will include a significant fieldwork component in the Northern Territory as well as genetics work in the laboratory. All students in our group are encouraged and supported to publish their research in international scientific journals.