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Understanding the spatial and temporal dynamics of environmental DNA for monitoring and management of priority invasive species

Dr Lori Lawson Handley (UoH), Dr. Bernd Hanfling (UoH), Dr. Alison Dunn (SoB), Dr. Kat Bruce (Nature Metrics), Dr Ben Aston (Yorkshire Water)

Project partner(s): Yorkshire Water (CASE)

Contact email:


Invasive non-native species (INNS) are one of the five global drivers of biodiversity loss and the rate of biological invasions is increasing. Dreissenid mussels (zebra mussels Dreissena polymorpha and quagga mussels D. rostriformis bugensis) are INNS that are high on the UK priority list for monitoring and management, due to their potential for rapid spread and negative impacts to biodiversity, infrastructure and human health. Dreissenids can rapidly colonise hard surfaces, causing major problems for the water industry and power companies by clogging pipes and encrusting other artificial structures. In Yorkshire alone, removal of zebra mussels from pipework currently costs £600K per annum. 

Early detection is key to preventing establishment and further spread of INNS, but this is particularly challenging for species that have microscopic life stages. Environmental DNA (eDNA) is a sensitive new method that is starting to revolutionise how we monitor INNS. We have recently developed eDNA assays for Dreissenid mussels that are highly sensitive for detection of both adult and larval stages. The successful student will use these tools to obtain novel insights into the dynamics of Dreissenid eDNA and to improve understanding of the species’ distribution and impact. Methods and data generated during the studentship will be critical for facilitating Dreissenid monitoring, management and mitigation.

Project Objectives

To understand the temporal dynamics of Dreissenid eDNA and inform future sampling campaigns. 

To understand the spatial dynamics of eDNA distribution and determine which key environmental variables influence the probability of detection of Dreissenid eDNA

To use eDNA to identify key pathways and vectors for Dreissenid spread

To evaluate the impact of Dreissenid mussels on the structure and function of invaded ecosystems


You will be supervised by Dr. Lori Lawson Handley and Dr. Bernd Hänfling from the EvoHull Group at the University of Hull, Dr. Alison Dunn from the School of Biology, University of Leeds and our CASE partner, Dr. Ben Aston from Yorkshire Water. You will also collaborate with Nature Metrics, the leading UK consultancy for DNA based monitoring. The project will provide specialist training in:

Environmental DNA sampling, capture and analysis

qPCR and High Throughput Sequencing (metabarcoding)


Statistical modelling (including site occupancy modelling) in R

EvoHull is one of the most experienced groups in the UK for eDNA analyses, has dedicated eDNA facilities, and currently supports 6 PhD students working on eDNA. Alison Dunn’s team are UK leaders on biosecurity and work closely with the water industry and other partners to reduce the spread of INNS. Yorkshire Water has extensive experience of supervising PhD students and offers a supportive environment to enable students to improve career prospects. You will have the opportunity to work alongside the YW Environment Assessment team and access training programmes, an industry mentor, and work space. Collectively, we have an excellent track record in training PhD students, publishing high impact research, and are highly active in national and international networks that will help you to develop external contacts and career prospects.

Entry Requirements

We are looking for a motivated student who has a keen interest in molecular ecology and biodiversity, and is equally happy in the field, lab or behind a computer! You should be interested in both basic and applied science, and keen to work with our CASE partner and disseminate information to external networks. Experience with molecular tools (e.g. PCR), using R, and/or bioinformatics would be useful. You must hold an Honours (2.1. or higher) or Masters degree in a related subject, such as Biology, Ecology, Genetics or Zoology. 

Click here for a full project description.

Suggested reading

Blackman, RC., Haenfling, B., Lawson Handley, LJ, 2018a. The use of environmental DNA as an early warning tool in the detection of new freshwater invasive non-native species. CAB Reviews, 13, pp.1–15.

Buxton, A.S., Groombridge, J.J. & Griffiths, R.A., 2018. Seasonal variation in environmental DNA detection in sediment and water samples. PloS one, 13(1), p.e0191737.

Karatayev, A.Y., Burlakova, L.E. & Padilla, D.K., 2015. Zebra versus quagga mussels: a review of their spread, population dynamics, and ecosystem impacts. Hydrobiologia, 746(1), pp.97–112.

Lawson Handley, L., 2015. How will the “molecular revolution”contribute to biological recording? Biological journal of the Linnean Society. Linnean Society of London, 115(3), pp.750–766.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Biodiversity
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Bioinformatics
  • Biology
  • Conservation
  • Conservation biology
  • Ecology
  • Environmental biology
  • Environmental conservation
  • Environmental management
  • Environmental policy
  • Environmental science
  • Evolution
  • Genetics
  • Molecular ecology
  • Natural resource management
  • Natural sciences
  • Spatial ecology
  • Statistics
  • Sustainability and environmental management
  • Zoology