Social insects are among the great achievements of organic evolution and their societies represent a major evolutionary transition in life’s move towards complexity. Consequently, insect societies have historically held a considerable interest for both biologists and lay people. One particularly interesting and rapidly developing field for evolutionary biologists is the interaction between social insects and their parasites, because the unique features of social systems may shape parasite exploitation strategies. My proposal will use Cordyceps, a parasitic fungus of ants, as a tool to examine host-parasite relationships within complex societies. This fungus dramatically manipulates ant behaviour before killing them. Building upon my unique understanding of the ecology of ant manipulating Cordyceps I will expand to examine the phylogeny and biogeography of Cordyceps on a global level, with a special focus on manipulative traits (Pierce lab at Harvard). My objectives are to resolve relationships within the ant infecting Cordyceps, test the hypotheses that this group has an Asian centre of origin and test if it is ecologically specialised on certain hosts. I will also investigate behavioural manipulation in a phylogenetic context. The knowledge gained during the outgoing phase will inform a research program during the return host phase (Talbot Lab, University of Exeter), where I will examine the molecular biology of behavioural manipulation of ants by Cordyceps. As such, I propose a project that, in addition to maximizing my professional training, will allow me to combine ant-parasite evolutionary ecology with molecular fungal biology to address fundamental questions in evolutionary biology. This fellowship would facilitate further training and promote my independence upon my return to the ERA. As well as its potential to foster synergisms between a third country and the ERA, it will significantly increase my prospects of obtaining a faculty position in the UK.
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