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Testing climatic causes of historical plague outbreaks using experimental microbiology and palaeobiogeographical modelling

Climate change poses many risks to human health and historical insights can enhance understanding of human vulnerabilities and inform potential consequences of future climate change on the spread of disease. This project aims to establish the climatic niche of bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis); in its own right and relative to its insect vectors, specifically using the rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopsis) and the human body louse (Pediculus humanus humanus). It will use the historic pandemics of the Black Death (14th – 17th centuries) and the Plague of Justinian (6th – 8th centuries) and draw on data from the more recent outbreak of the 19th and 20th centuries, through a modeling and experimental approach using the disciplines of Macroecology, Palaeoclimatology and Molecular and Cellular Bacteriology.

The student will adapt environmental niche modelling to develop spatially explicit maps of the environmental suitability of plague outbreaks, using historical climate surfaces, developed from climate model reconstructions and published climate proxy databases, and databases of plague outbreak. The student will use Maxent to identify the ‘environmental niche’ of plague outbreaks. The student will fit models with and without the vectors’ distribution as predictors to test whether climate has direct or indirect (via vector) effects on plague outbreaks. Given environmental niche models are correlation based, and thus cannot identify causal links the student will then experimentally test whether plague outbreaks are climatically limited. Climatic conditions identified by niche modelling to promote or inhibit plague outbreaks will be recreated in the laboratory in order to assess the viability of the insects and bacteria in an infection context.

Applicants should hold a minimum of a UK Honours Degree at 2:1 level or equivalent; a Natural Science background would be ideal for this multidisciplinary project otherwise a first degree in Biology, Geography, Maths or related subjects would be preferable. An MSc or equivalent in a related discipline would be an advantage. Full training will be given to the student to ensure that they develop the necessary skills and knowledge to be able to successfully work across these disciplines.

For further details please contact, Dr Steve Atkinson (, Dr Adam Algar ( or Dr Matt Jones (