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Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

Dr David Hughes

Dr David Hughes

Marie Curie Fellow (currently in Harvard)

 Geoffrey Pope 


Geoffrey Pope Building, University of Exeter , Stocker Road, Exeter, EX4 4QD, UK


I am interested in parasite exploitation strategies and how they are shaped by host life history. Of particular interest is the adaptive manipulation of host behaviour by parasites. I mostly work with social insects as hosts because the behavioural changes of infected individuals can be set within a sociobiological framework. I am member of the Behaviour research group. I am currently at Harvard University and will return to Exeter in April 2010.

During my time away a major occupation will be generating funding to take on students and staff. If you are student at Exeter Biosciences (either campus) and interested in the work I do, then do contact me and we can discuss the research. I usually do field work (in Thailand) in September and getting involved in this would serve as an ideal way to get to know one another.


1999 - 2003 DPhil (Oxford) Thesis: 'The behavioural ecology of strepsipteran parasites of Polistes wasps'
1994- 1999 BSc Zoology (Glasgow)


2008-2011 Marie Curie Outgoing International Fellowship at Harvard & Exeter
2005-2008 Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship at Copenhagen
2003-2005 EU 6th Framework Training Network post-doc at Oulu

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Research interests

I have spent the last three years developing the infection of Carpenter ants by the behaviourally manipulating fungus, Ophiocordyceps (=Cordyceps) unilateralis, as a model for a range of ecological, evolutionary and mechanistic approaches. The work takes place in Thailand.

Research projects

The proximate mechanisms of behavioural manipulation by a fungus: The fungus Ophiocordyceps causes a dramatic change in ant behaviour. It induces infected ants to bite vegetation before killing the hapless host and converting its tissue into fungal spores that are shot from a large stalk that grows out from the head. What I want to determine, using a combined bio imaging, transcriptomic and metabolomic approach, is how the fungus controls ant behaviour? This research direction will be the prime focus of my work at Exeter over the coming years as I build up my own research group. I plan to use the considerable in-house expertise in fungal & microbial molecular biology to determine the mechanistic basis of a complex behavioural pas de deux between fungus and ant.

The phylogenetics and phylogeography of behavioural manipulation: The fungus O. unilateralis is pan-tropical and manipulates a wide range of ant species both at the local scale of Thailand where I work and on a global scale. It is one of a small number of currently recognized species within the genus Ophiocordyceps that manipulate ant behaviour. During my current 18-month stay at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ, Pierce Lab) I will re-construct an ant-Ophiocordyceps phylogeny on a local (Thailand) and global scale. The MCZ has been, and continues to be, the centre of ant studies in the world and also has very significant strengths in phylogenetics and life history theory.

The ecological consequences of behavioural manipulation: An infected ant expresses behaviour that benefits fungal and not ant genes. This is a parasite extended phenotype. I am interested in the ecology of these extended phenotypes.  There have been three research foci of this project: spatial ecology, behavioural ecology and community ecology. This work took place during my tenure in the Centre for Social Evolution (CSE), Copenhagen under a Marie Curie Fellowship where Koos Boomsma was the hosting scientist. I aim to continue my ecological work while at the School of Biosciences and am keen to develop links with students at the Cornwall campus.

Research networks

Centre for Social Evolution, Copenhagen SE
Mycology Lab at BIOTEC, Bangkok
Pierce Lab, Harvard
Tom Gilbert, Copenhagen

Research grants

  • 2008 Marie Curie Fellowship
    2008-2011 Marie Curie Fellowship
  • 2008 European Science Foundation
    Exploratory Workshop grant
  • 2007 World Wildlife Fund
    Novozymes Biodiversity grant
  • 2006 Marie Curie Fellowship
    Marie Curie Fellowship


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External Engagement and Impact

Editorial responsibilities

I have acted as a reviewer for Biology Letters, Molecular Ecology, Ecological Entomology, Parasitology and Proceeding of the Royal Society.
In 2008 I edited a book for OUP, with Patrizia d’Ettorre.

Invited lectures

I have given many departmental lectures in a number of fine institutions.

Media Coverage

National Geographic are doing a feature length article on my research in Thailand and parasites more generally.

Workshops/Conferences organised

I am convening an ESF Exploratory Workshop to take place in Copenhagen in early November. The topic is the extended phenotype, I hope to get a website up and running disseminating the activities and outcome of this.

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