Three PhD Positions on Zombie-Making Fungi and Their Insect Hosts

Three PhD Positions on Zombie-Making Fungi and Their Insect Hosts

Published Deadline Location
23 Jan 19 Feb Utrecht

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How can fungal parasites hijack insect host behaviour? Join our ERC-funded research team and find out!

Job description

We are looking to expand our team with three PhD candidates who share our curiosity about zombie-making fungi and their insect hosts.

Your job
Reminiscent of zombies in pop culture, some (fungal) parasites hijack and change host behaviours. Parasites use this behavioural manipulation strategy to improve transmission from one host to the next. Our molecular understanding of this phenomenon is very limited. To increase our knowledge, our lab received a Consolidator Award from the European Research Council to further develop the so-called “zombie ants” into a model system. These ants are infected by Ophiocordyceps fungi, which cause summit disease.

The upcoming project will use fungal and insect genetics techniques to better understand the molecular mechanisms that underly Ophiocordyceps-ant interactions that result in parasite adaptive behaviour. In other words: we want to understand what fungal proteins do to ant behavioural pathways that result in manipulated/altered behaviours. This means that the project is highly integrative and combines fungal and insect genetics with behaviour and transcriptomics. Ambitious, but great for creative, motivated students who have experience in and a good working knowledge of at least one of these research fields and are interested to learn others. Do you feel like we describe you? Then consider to apply!

As part of our team you would be integrating techniques from several biological disciplines:
  • apply fungal and insect genetics technology to study the function of candidate manipulation compounds;
  • produce and analyse transcriptomics datasets to reveal host pathways involved in altered behaviours;
  • work with a variety of invertebrate host organisms ranging from established model systems to ant colonies collected from nature;
  • design behavioural setups and use quantitative tracking software, coupled with statistical analyses to study behavioural phenotypes;
  • participate in yearly field expeditions to Florida (USA) to collect ant colonies.


Utrecht University


We are looking for enthusiastic PhD candidates who are curious, creative, and who do not shy away from thinking out of the box and learning new skills. Additionally, to fit well within our research team, you have a strong interest in parasite-host interactions, fungal biology and/or insect behaviour. It also works in your favour if you have already developed a good working knowledge in experimental design and statistics.

We would also like you to bring:
  • a Master’s degree with a background in one of the following: molecular biology, microbial (fungal) genetics, insect genetics, or a related field;
  • great oral and written communication skills in English.

The following skills would be nice to also have (but not necessary, as long as you have an interest and willingness to develop them):
  • prior experience with genomics or transcriptomics data generation;
  • prior experience with insect handling, collecting and husbandry (at the very least you are not squeamish around insects);
  • prior experience with animal behaviour analysis;
  • programming skills.

Conditions of employment

We offer:
  • a full-time position for 4 years;
  • enrolment in the PhD Programme Environmental Biology within the Graduate School of Life Sciences;
  • a gross monthly salary between € 2.770,- and € 3.539,- in the case of full-time employment (salary scale P under the Collective Labour Agreement for Dutch Universities (CAO NU);
  • 8% holiday pay and 8.3% year-end bonus;
  • a pension scheme, partially paid parental leave and flexible terms of employment based on the CAO NU.

In addition to the terms of employment laid down in the CAO NU, Utrecht University has a number of schemes and facilities of its own for employees. This includes schemes facilitating professional development, leave schemes and schemes for sports and cultural activities, as well as discounts on software and other IT products. We also offer access to additional employee benefits through our Terms of Employment Options Model. In this way, we encourage our employees to continue to invest in their growth. For more information, please visit Working at Utrecht University.


Universiteit Utrecht

A better future for everyone. This ambition motivates our scientists in executing their leading research and inspiring teaching. At Utrecht University, the various disciplines collaborate intensively towards major strategic themes. Our focus is on Dynamics of Youth, Institutions for Open Societies, Life Sciences and Pathways to Sustainability. Shaping science, sharing tomorrow.

At the Faculty of Science there are 6 departments to make a fundamental connection with: Biology, Chemistry, Information and Computing Sciences, Mathematics, Pharmaceutical Sciences and Physics. Each of these is made up of distinct institutes that work together to focus on answering some of humanity’s most pressing challenges. More fundamental still are the individual research groups – the building blocks of our ambitious scientific projects.

Our lab and the Microbiology Group are part of the Department of Biology, which hosts a large number of research chairs that are organised within two institutes: the Institute for Biodynamics and Biocomplexity (IBB) and the Institute of Environmental Biology (IEB). Microbiology is embedded within the Institute of Environmental Biology (IEB). The scientists at the IEB combine molecular biology, physiology and genomics with plant, animal, and microbial ecology at different organisational levels of life - from genes, cells and organisms to population communities and entire ecosystems. It is the ambition of the IEB to further develop national and international leadership in integrated biological studies of plants, microbes, and animals and to create a stimulating, competitive environment for talented young scientists.

The Department of Biology also coordinates the teaching of the Bachelor’s programme in Biology, as well as the Master’s programmes and PhD courses that are offered through the Graduate School of Life Sciences. Each institute promotes the maintenance of a high-quality and interactive research environment.

You will join the Parasitic Behavioural Manipulation Lab embedded within the Microbiology Group. Our research is driven by our curiosity about fungi, their interactions with animals, and their abilities to hijack their hosts. Through our interdisciplinary collaborations we ask research questions across levels of biological organisation. Our integrative research approach to study fungal parasites makes for a vibrant lab in which researchers from various backgrounds and research interests can chase their ambitions. We strive to be an inclusive workplace where everyone can feel comfortable being their authentic selves. We value our differences and believe that we become better scientists and individuals by learning and sharing ideas across race, gender, age, religion, identity, nationality and experiences.


  • PhD
  • Natural sciences
  • 36—40 hours per week
  • €2770—€3539 per month
  • University graduate
  • 3551



Padualaan 8, 3584CH, Utrecht

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