Project Highlights:

  • Unique opportunity to undertake research with British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the US Antarctic Program (USAP), as well as project partners in Chile and France to work on key polar species.
  • Field and lab based ecophysiological studies combined with cutting-edge comparative ‘omics techniques to enhance our understanding of extremophile evolutionary biology.
  • Examining species adaptation and the threat of invasive species at the front line of climate change.


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 – thus wiping out all terrestrial life. However, this idea 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 continual presence of habitat refugia since Antarctica split from the other Southern Hemisphere continents at least 28 million years ago [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 stress [Hayward, 2014; Kelly et al. 2014]. Combined with studies of their ecology, this will allow us to determine the capacity of endemic species to cope with climate change, as well as the risks posed by invasive alien species moving into the region.

This project will add a new dimension to an existing 3 yr grant (2019-2022) between UoB, BAS, USAP as well as project partners in Chile and France, to compare a unique sub-set of Antarctic and high latitude southern insects. In doing so, we aim to identify key genomic features and ecophysiological adaptations to polar habitats which can also be compared with other extremophiles. These data will also open the door for comparison with potential invasive species, to assess the impact of ‘alien’ invasions under climate change facilitated by increasing human activity in Antarctica.

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 to characterise different terrestrial microhabitats. Field work may also include community analyses to determine the impact of invasive species, and the collection of soil samples for biogeochemistry.

Next generation sequencing (NGS) and gene expression studies will be performed at UoB using an Illumina HiSeq 2500 platform. Standardised stress treatments regularly employed in our labs will be used for comparative physiology studies and to determine the impact of future climate scenarios on survival and development (Everatt et al. 2015).

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 and environmental research. The DR will receive specialist training in stress physiology, ecology, ‘omics techniques and data analysis. They will also gain extensive training in field research methods, and become expert in understanding polar terrestrial ecology. 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, Chile or France.

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, as well as field-based ecology and physiology experiments. Funding is subject to current BAS/NERC procedure of application for ‘Collaborative Gearing Scheme’ to cover Antarctic travel and field clothing costs).

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

Organise public understanding of science event based around project.

Year 3: Continued comparative studies with B. Anatarctica, Patagonian and sub-Antarctic species in collaboration with project partners.

International conference and ongoing submission of manuscripts, as well as impact activities/stakeholder engagment.


Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

This project builds on a highly successful partnership between Hayward (UoB) and Convey (BAS), with 12 papers from 2 previous PhD projects (with at 2 more in review and several still in preparation).

The collaboration between Hayward, Orsini and Colbourne integrates expertise and multidisciplinary approaches in ecophysiology genomics and transcriptomics. The partnership with BAS, as well as international collaborators from the USA, Chile and France 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