Host and PhD Awarding institution: University of Exeter (UNIEXE)

Primary Supervisor: Dr. Elizabeth Williams

Project duration: 36 months.

Project description: This project will compare the head sensory systems (antennae, cirri, nuchal organ) of closely related nereid polychaete species Platynereis dumerilii and Platynereis massiliensis. Platynereis dumerilii has free-swimming larvae while Platynereis massiliensis shows direct development. Initial studies indicated that sensory structures in P. massiliensis are reduced, for example, they lack antennae. The PhD candidate will analyse an available synapse-resolution serial EM dataset of a Platynereis dumerilii larva and obtain and analyse an EM series of an equivalent stage Platynereis massiliensis larva in collaboration with Professor Gaspar Jekely’s group at the University of Heidelberg. All neurons projecting from sensory head appendages will be reconstructed in both species. Synaptic connectivity maps will be complemented by the comprehensive mapping of conserved proneuropeptides and neurotransmitters and their receptors by a combination of immunostaining and hybridization chain reaction (HCR). The PhD candidate will also generate an atlas of neuroendocrine and nervous system markers in P. massiliensis for comparison with existing data from P. dumerilii. The candidate will compare cellular phenotypes at nanometer resolution between the two species with benthic vs pelagic development and correlate this with neuroendocrine molecular maps. To dissect inter-specific functional differences, the candidate will use neuropeptide pharmacology in both species. By comparing nervous system morphology and signalling in closely related pelagic and direct developing polychaete larval types, this project will contribute to our understanding of the evolution of larval sensory systems for navigation in the sea.

Required applicant profile: Applicants should have a Masters or First Class Honours degree in science, preferably in Biology, or equivalent qualifications. Practical experience in molecular, cell or developmental biology, microscopy (electron microscopy, confocal microscopy), behavioural and/or image analysis will be an advantage, however training for specific techniques will also be provided on the project. Applicants should have a strong enthusiasm for larval biology, sensory systems, evolution, development and/or marine biology and be able to work both independently and as part of a team.

Application deadline: 14th April 2024 

How to apply: Applications should be submitted onlineInterested candidates may contact Elizabeth Williams ( to discuss the post.