Joining the group

Postdoctoral researchers

We welcome inquiries from prospective postdoctoral researchers. Although we do not have funding for postdoctoral researchers at the moment, it is possible to apply for a University of Sydney Fellowship (deadline in August). Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards are also available through the Australian Research Council (application deadline in March). Both of these schemes are highly competitive.

Postgraduate research students

Students interested in undertaking a PhD in molecular ecology, molecular evolution, phylogenetics, biology of termites and other arthropods, symbiosis, and environmental DNA are encouraged to contact us.

Potential PhD candidates can find out more information here. Australian citizens, Australian permanent residents, and New Zealand citizens are eligible for Research Training Program Stipend Scholarships. International students are eligible for a number of scholarships.

Honours students

Honours students interested in undertaking projects in molecular ecology, molecular evolution, phylogenetics, symbiosis, biology of termites and other arthropods, and environmental DNA are encouraged to contact us. General information about Honours can be found here.

Examples of potential Honours projects are given below, but projects can be designed in accordance with the interests of prospective students. Please contact us if you are interested in undertaking an Honours project in the MEEP lab.

Potential Honours projects


The role of junk DNA in termite biology

Supervisor: Nathan Lo

Biology has yielded many surprises, but one of the greatest has been the discovery that standard protein-coding genes in animal genomes represent only a small fraction of the genome size, sometimes less than 2%. A large fraction of the genome consists of repetitive elements, which for a long time have been considered “junk DNA”. We have discovered repetitive elements in termites that appear to play an important role in termite biology. This project will involve examining the expression of these repetitive elements, and silencing their expression to look for phenotypic effects.


Evolution of the heaviest cockroach on earth

Supervisors: Nathan Lo & Simon Ho

Macropanesthia rhinoceros is an endemic Australian cockroach, and also the world’s heaviest. It ranges from outback northern Queensland all the way to the Great Barrier Reef. It digs burrows in the soil up to a metre deep, and gives birth to live young, both unique traits among cockroaches. Unlike its pest relatives, M. rhinoceros is quite charismatic - it is wingless, slow moving, and has a strict diet of eucalyptus leaves. The aim of this project is to study how and when this species evolved, by sequencing its DNA and performing phylogenetic comparisons with related cockroaches. One hypothesis is that it evolved from wood-dwelling, rainforest cockroach species, and developed its unique traits as a result of increasing aridity in Australia over the last 15 million years. This project will involve learning molecular and computational techniques used in evolutionary biology


Polygamy in termites

Supervisors: Nathan Lo & Ben Oldroyd

In most termite species, colonies are formed by one queen and king, who then have up to a few million offspring. However, in Nasutitermes exitiosus – a species found in Sydney - colonies often have multiple kings and queens. This is expected to lead to some conflict between the parents for their share in reproduction, and the reasons for its evolution are unknown. One possibility is that under difficult ecological conditions it is easier to form a colony with multiple reproductives rather than just two. This project involves field work and genetic analysis to determine the number of kings and queens in N. exitiosus colonies, and examination of the conditions under which they are found.


Are Australian ticks spreading Lyme disease?

Supervisor: Nathan Lo

Ticks are obligate bloodsucking arthropods second only to mosquitoes as worldwide vectors of human diseases. A number of Ixodes spp., including the paralysis tick I. holocyclus, have geographic distributions along the east coast of Australia, overlapping with the bulk of the human population. The presence in Australia of Lyme borreliosis - the most common tick-borne disease in the world - is controversial. Lyme is caused by at least three species of the spirochete genus Borrelia. On the basis of studies on ticks during the 1990s, the current advice from the NSW Health Service is that there is “no evidence for the presence of Lyme borreliosis in Australia”. However, there have been many cases of tick-bite victims in Australia who have developed Lyme-like disease symptoms, and number of medical experts believe that the disease is present here. In this project you will use molecular techniques to examine Australian ticks for the presence of Borrelia and other potential pathogens.


Rates of molecular evolution across the Tree of Life

Supervisor: Simon Ho

Evolutionary rates vary across the Tree of Life, but the patterns of variation have not been characterised in detail at the genomic level. Some particularly interesting questions include: (i) How much rate variation exists across organisms? (ii) Do mitochondrial and nuclear genomes show similar patterns of rates? (iii) To what extent does natural selection affect the patterns of rate variation in coding genes compared with non-coding DNA? This project will provide the opportunity to develop bioinformatic skills and will gain a broad appreciation of statistical and computational techniques in evolutionary biology.


Phylogenetics of the protist Labyrinthula in Australia

Supervisors: Osu Lilje, Simon Ho, and Katie Robinson

The protist genus Labyrinthula comprises saprobes and opportunistic endophytes with a wide host range. Labyrinthula species cause globally significant disease in seagrass populations, and exacerbate declines in estuarine ecosystem health. Australia has some of the most diverse seagrass assemblages in the world, but we know nothing about Labyrinthula diversity in Australia. This project will determine the phylogenetic relationships of Australian estuarine Labyrinthula currently in the university's culture collection and contribute to the taxonomic revision of Labyrinthula for Australia. The project will involve systematics/phylogenetic and morphological analyses.

Environmental DNA

Developing environmental DNA tools for rapid bio-assessment

Supervisors: Mark de Bruyn

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is a powerful, rapidly emerging tool in ecology and environmental science. Instead of sampling a specific organism, we can sample the water body it lives in or drinks from, sequence the DNA found therein, and identify which species are/were present. Working with industry partners, we will develop eDNA tools for rapid bio-assessment in NSW. Depending on the interests of the student, the project could focus on species of high conservation concern, or invasive pests. This project will require fieldwork, molecular lab work, and bioinformatics approaches.

Halfbeak fish

Has past climate change caused 'reverse speciation' in freshwater fishes?

Supervisors: Mark de Bruyn and Nate Lo

Growing evidence indicates that human activity has been responsible for recent species extinctions through 'reverse speciation'. The removal of geographic or ecological isolating barriers, through habitat destruction or environmental deterioration, can lead to a breakdown in species barriers. This occurs because previously isolated taxa come into contact, resulting in hybridisation ('hybrid swarming'). Little attention has been given, however, to the role of natural long-term environmental processes on reverse speciation. This project will investigate the role of past environmental change in Southeast Asian halfbeak fishes that have been exposed to rearrangements in habitat availability, and levels of connectivity, as a result of past climate change. Focussing on three genera of halfbeak fishes, we will use statistical and bioinformatic methods to: 1) assemble a phylogenetic framework for these fishes; 2) test for phylogenetic under- or over-dispersion; and 3) identify processes governing species composition.


Assembling a phylogenetic framework for the Australia biota

Supervisors: Mark de Bruyn and Simon Ho

Unravelling the biogeographic history of the Australian continent is a formidable task, and a number of research groups are working on this topic across various taxonomic groups. One promising method for identifying general biogeographic patterns, and the palaeoenvironmental drivers of those patterns, is through meta-analyses of time-calibrated molecular phylogenies across a diverse range of taxonomic groups. You will conduct a systematic review of the existing literature, assemble a phylogenetic database based on pre-determined criteria, and conduct meta-analyses of these phylogenies through model-choice and model-testing. A systematic approach to your work and an interest in macroecology would be useful.