Project Highlights:

  • Unique opportunity to undertake research with British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the US Antarctic Program (USAP) and our partners in Chile to work on key polar species.
  • State of the art lab based physiological studies combined with cutting-edge comparative genomics to enhance our understanding of the physiological capacity of extremophiles and their evolutionary biology.
  • Examining species adaptation and the threat of invasive species at the front line of climate change.


Antarctica has been isolated from the other Southern Hemisphere continents for at least 28 million years (Myr). Model reconstructions of the last glacial maximum (LGM ~20 000 years BP) suggest that all low-lying coastal areas on Antarctica, and many sub-Antarctic islands were completely covered by ice. However, this is now challenged by an increasing body of biological evidence which depicts evolutionary phylogenies of terrestrial species separated by many millions of years, strongly suggesting the presence of habitat refugia during previous glacial cycles [Allegrucci et al. 2012].

Some of the most compelling evidence regarding the biogeography of Antarctic terrestrial organisms comes from studies of Antarctic insects (Fig. 1). The flightless midge Belgica antarctica 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. 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.

Investigating the genomes and physiology of these species offers incredibly powerful comparative models for probing their evolutionary biology as well as responses to extreme temperatures, dehydration etc. (Hayward, 2014]. The recently sequenced genome of B. antarctica was found to be just 99 Mb, making it one of the smallest insect genomes (Kelly et al. 2014). However, the number of genes was comparable with other Diptera, suggesting that environmental extremes have not constrained gene content.

This project will be part of an existing partnership between UoB, BAS and USAP to compare a unique sub-set of Antarctic and high latitude southern insects. In doing so, we aim to identify key genomic features and physiological adaptations to polar habitats which can also be compared with other extremophiles. In turn, these data will open the door for comparison with potential invasive species, to assess the risk of ‘alien’ invasions under climate change facilitated by increasing human activity in Antarctica.


Fig. 1 Map showing distributions of B. antarctica, E. murphyi and midge species from Patagonia.


Through our existing international collaborations, we already have samples of B. antarctica, E. murphyi and relevant Patagonian species. However, we anticipate at least one Antarctic field season to collect fresh samples and undertake associated ecophysiological experiments.

For genome analysis, next generation sequencing (NGS) will be performed at UoB using an Illumina HiSeq 2500 platform. Genome size will be determined from flow cytometry using well established methods (Kelly et al. 2014). Standardised stress treatments regularly employed in our labs will be used for comparative studies and to determine the impact of future environmental scenarios on survival and development (Everatt et al. 2015). For associated gene expression studies, mRNA libraries (paired end 100bp) will be constructed and sequenced on an Illumina HiSeq 2500 platform. Libraries will be 96-fold multiplexed using the NEBNext library barcoding system. Bioinformatic tools developed in house will be employed for comparative genomics and transcriptomic data analysis.

Training and Skills

Hayward, Colbourne and Orsini are all based within the Environmental Change research theme in the School of Biosciences (https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/biosystems-environmental-change/index.aspx), providing training in the use of state-of-the art facilities at the vanguard of systems biology/omics and environmental research. The DR will receive specialist training in stress physiology research, genomics, transcriptomics and bioinformatic analysis. They will gain extensive training in field research techniques, and become expert in understanding polar terrestrial systems more widely. Convey (BAS) and our USAP partners provide additional ‘in the field’ molecular biology and whole ecosystem ecology expertise during research trips. There is huge scope for stakeholder impact and public engagement.


Year 1: Undertake preliminary physiological assessments and associated gene expression studies. Omics and bioinformatics training. Possible research visit to project partner lab in USA or Chile.

Initiate engagement with policy and industry project stakeholders, e.g. Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO).

First UK Conference end of Yr 1

Preparation of manuscripts for publication.

Year 2: Antarctic field season – collection of fresh samples for return to UK (subject to current BAS/NERC procedure of application for ‘Collaborative Gearing Scheme’ to cover Antarctic travel and field clothing costs). Field-based ecophysiological experiments.

Ongoing analysis of omics data and preparation/submission of manuscripts.

Organise public understanding of science event based around project.

Year 3: Continued omics and bioinformatic analyses, including comparative studies with B. anatarctica and Patagonian species from Chilean partners.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

This project builds on a highly successful partnership between Hayward (UoB) and Convey (BAS), with 8 papers from a previous CASE PhD (2011-2014). Their current CASE PhD (Jes Bartlett) will finish March 2019, and already has two papers published, another in review, and three more in prep.

The project represents a new collaboration between Hayward and Orsini, integrating expertise and multidisciplinary approaches in ecophysiology genomics and transcriptomics. The partnership with BAS, as well as international collaborators from USAP and Chile, will provide unique access to field sites and training/experience in planning and achieving work in remote and extreme environments.

Further Details

Any further questions about the project, please contact:

Dr Scott Hayward

School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham

e-mail: s.a.hayward@bham.ac.uk