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Tainted Love? Modelling the epidemiology, ecology and evolutionary consequences of pollinator-transmitted plant disease.

Supervisor: Dr Nik Cunniffe (Principal Supervisor), with Prof. Beverley Glover and Prof. Chris Gilligan

Reference code: B115

Importance of the area of research concerned: A number of plant diseases are transmitted by pollinators.  However pollinator service is also often required for plants to reproduce: attractiveness to pollinators promotes reproduction, but also brings the plant into contact with disease.  The implications of this epidemiological-ecological dynamic are not well understood.  The range of many plant pathogens is increasing, caused by climate change and increased movement via trade and travel.  There is also a well-reported global decline in pollinator density. Understanding the dynamics and evolutionary implications of sexually-transmitted diseases in plants has therefore never been more important.

Project summary: This project aims to understand the ecological and evolutionary pressures exerted on plants by pollinator-transmitted diseases.  Being attractive to pollinators promotes plant reproduction, particularly for obligate outcrossing species.  However, it also increases the risk of coming into contact with sexually-transmitted diseases. How flower attractiveness might respond to these contrasting pressures when there is pollinator-transmitted disease is not understood. Doing so requires techniques and insights from plant epidemiology, pollinator behavioural ecology, plant population dynamics and population genetics. In this project we will link these diverse areas via a mathematical modelling approach.

What the student will actually do:

  1. Develop mathematical models of pollinator-transmitted plant disease.
  2. Link the epidemiological models to models for plant population dynamics.
  3. Extend the epidemiological-ecological models to include population genetics.
  4. Use the suite of models to examine responses to:
    • disease pressure;
    • disease transmission route;
    • pollinator densities.
  5. Use the models to investigate evolutionary pressures on plant flower attractiveness, for different plant-pathogen interactions, plant mating types and levels of pollinator service.

Training will be provided in:

  • abstracting complex biological systems into mathematical models;
  • epidemiology, theoretical ecology and population genetics;
  • mathematical analysis and computer programming.


  1. Antonovics, J. 2005. Plant venereal diseases: insights from a messy metaphor. New Phytologist. Vol. 165, pp 71-80.
  2. Ferrari, M.J., Bjornstad, O.N., Partain, J.L, Antonovics, J. 2006. A gravity model for the spread of a pollinator-borne plant pathogen. American Naturalist. Vol. 168, pp 294-303.
  3. Thrall, P.H., Antonovics, J., Bever, J.D. 1997. Sexual transmission of disease and host mating systems: within-season reproductive success. American Naturalist. Vol. 149, pp 485-506.