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BSc and MSc projects

BSc and MSc projects

The Pirbright Institute has the following Year-In-Industry placements available, commencing August 2020.  We welcome applications from students who are currently in their 2nd year of a relevant undergraduate science degree. Placements will be either unfunded but with on-site housing provided, or offered with a £5,000 scholarship. Please note you may apply for ONE project only.

If English is not your first language, you will be required to provide evidence of your ability. We require an overall IELTS score of 7.0 with no lower than 7.0 in reading and listening, no lower than 6.5 in speaking and no lower than 6.0 in writing.  Other English language qualifications may be accepted.  Successful candidates will be required to pass our security and health screening before commencing the placement.

To Apply:  To apply for one of these projects please email your CV (no more than two sides of A4) and a covering letter detailing why you would like to be considered for the placement, including the knowledge and skills that you will bring to the Institute - please include in your letter the reference number and title of the project that you wish to apply for (you can apply for one project only). Please email your application to:  

Closing date to apply: 31 January 2020

Reference No. Project Title Summary

Characterisation of self-renewing porcine macrophage cell models and their application to support vaccine development

Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome viruses (PRRSV) are rapidly evolving RNA viruses responsible for the most economically important disease affecting the global pig industry.  There are known to be two species of PPRSV, both of which have evolved to produce several highly pathogenic strains of virus. Commercially available live attenuated vaccines fail to provide broad cross-protection across the plethora of strains that have (and are likely) to emerge and their ability to revert to virulence poses significant challenges to protect livestock. There is, therefore, an urgent requirement to explore alternative approaches to vaccine development to combat the PRRSV panzootic. Working with collaborators, The Pirbright Institute’s PRRS Immunology Group are pursuing ambitious complimentary approaches to develop improved PRRS vaccines. Full details


River Deep, Mountain High: On the Search for Where Midges Aren’t

No livestock farm has been discovered to date in the UK that does not support populations of biting midges (Culicoides). In contrast, areas outside farms have received negligible trapping effort, which means we have only a very limited understanding of how Culicoides interact with wildlife, or disperse between farms. This student project will encompass trapping based at areas of known distance from livestock in order to examine this phenomenon. Full details


Investigating the age structure of Culicoides biting midge populations and implications for bluetongue virus transmission

Culicoides biting midges act as vectors of economically important viruses of livestock. In the UK several species of midges have been implicated in the transmission of both bluetongue virus serotype 8 (BTV-8) and Schmallenberg virus; including the morphologically indistinguishable Obsoletus group. In order to transmit a virus, female Culicoides must feed on a viraemic host and survive long enough for the virus to replicate and disseminate to the salivary glands before feeding on a susceptible animal. The duration of this extrinsic incubation period is dependent on the virus strain, species of Culicoides and temperature. This period represents a significant proportion of the midge lifespan, therefore not all midges that consume an infectious bloodmeal will survive to become infectious. The age profile of the Culicoides population is therefore a critical determinant of transmission risk.  Current age-grading of female midges relies upon abdominal pigmentation observed in midges after the consumption of a bloodmeal and egg laying. However, the reliability of this technique has become increasingly questioned. Techniques currently in use for other insect species are being compared for application in Culicoides age-grading by Dr Stokes as part of the current Defra grant SE4115. The successful student will further develop an alternative age-grading technique from SE4115 for integration into current ongoing Culicoides population and vector competence studies.  Full details


Immunocapture of bluetongue virus virions with virus-specific antibodies to enrich for virus reads prior to next generation sequencing

During the one-year placement, the student will support an ongoing research project on molecular and serological diagnostics of bluetongue virus and related orbiviruses. The student will be expected to help develop, implement and validate a method for virus enrichment based on virion immunocapture. In this method, BTV virions will be captured using the virus-specific antibodies in order to reduce the amount of host RNA present in the clinical specimens.  Full details


Develop and validate a Luminex assay to serotype all AHSV strains within a single test and integrate this assay into diagnostic repertoire

The Luminex xMAP technology has the capacity to allow for a high throughout multiplexing tool. Such a technology has advantages in situations where disease caused by different pathogens can’t be clinically differentiated, or in situations where numerous serotypes of a particular pathogen circulate. This project will concern the development of an xMAP assay for the detection and differentiation of all African horse sickness virus (AHSV) serotypes. This will aid in the understanding of AHS epidemiology and will facilitate rapid diagnosis and timely deployment of vaccine.  Full details



Identification of germline-specific introns for the spatial and temporal control of Cas9 in An. stephensi

Our lab is interested in developing Cas9-dependent gene drive systems which could lead to suppression of local mosquito populations. Gene drive is a genetic engineering technology which increases the likelihood that a gene may be inherited, potentially allowing it to spread rapidly through a population over several generations. One potential use of such drive is to modify mosquitoes so that they can pass on genetic traits that result in infertile female offspring. The success of the system, however, depends heavily on the ability to restrict Cas9 to a precise location and time in the germline of a developing mosquito. Leaky expression of Cas9 outside of that time and place could cause unintended sterility and also result in dissemination of cut-resistant alleles into the population, which can prevent the spread of the gene drive. In fact, both phenomena have been shown to impede the continual propagation of the drive element in An. gambiae and An. stephensi (Gantz et al., 2015; Hammond et al., 2016). This project will therefore aim to identify An. stephensi genes which are differentially spliced in the gonads and determine the intronic sequences. If more time is available after the introns are successfully characterised, they will then be assessed for their abilities to control the expression pattern of Cas9 in a transgenic mosquito.Full details


Understanding how the gut and respiratory microbiota is altered following influenza virus infection of chickens

Low pathogenicity avian influenza virus (LPAIV) of the H9N2 subtype has been endemic in poultry populations throughout Asia, Middle East, Europe, and Africa since it emerged in China during 1994. These viruses have caused severe economic losses for the poultry industry as they result in reduced egg production and moderate to high mortality in broiler chickens. Control of H9N2 infection of poultry is difficult and even a long-term vaccination programmes have not prevented the spread and endemic establishment of this disease. In chickens, LPAIVs have tropism for both the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract. The commensal microbiome is known to play a critical role in shaping host defences against pathogens and infection by influenza has been shown to alter this population in mammals and birds. We hypothesise that modulation of the commensal microbiome populations at sites of influenza replication can modulate host responses to influenza infection and this can have a resultant impact on infection kinetics. Furthermore, it will be of interest to estimate the baseline microbiome in the respiratory tract of chickens and then evaluate the changes in microbiota composition during the course of influenza infection.  Full details


The Tet-OFF system and the potential importance of transformation markers

The student will rear different transgenic mosquito lines and characterise the expression pattern of the selected strains to help identify key features of the Tet-OFF system. The findings will allow the optimisation of the design of future constructs, working towards the development of a Killer-Rescue drive in Aedes aegypti.

Mosquito-borne diseases are a severe public health burden worldwide. The mosquito Aedes aegypti is a widely distributed vector of arboviruses like chikungunya, dengue and Zika. As there are no safe and effective vaccines for these diseases, the development of genetics-based control methods such as gene drives to modify populations to make the mosquitoes less able to transmit pathogens is very attractive. One of such methods, which is localised, with low invasiveness and self-limitation, is a Killer-Rescue drive (1). This system requires effective lethal genes and efficient rescues, and the Arthropod Genetics group uses the Tet-OFF system to develop and test each component.  Full details


Sex-specific differences in mosquito flight machinery

The student will rear selected transgenic mosquito lines, collect samples and run quantitative PCR experiments to help to understand the importance of the presence of male and female specific forms of the actin and myosin genes. The findings will provide information that could be used for the development of novel genetic control methods against Aedes aegypti, a main vector of viral diseases such as chikungunya, dengue and Zika.

The long-term goal is to develop novel genetic tools for the control of pest insects, especially mosquitoes but also relevant to agricultural pests for overview of such genetic control. One route to this is to develop genetic elements which incapacitate one sex - typically females, since they are more important in defining population reproductive capacity. This project has a substantial fundamental-science aspect, with additional potential to provide knowledge and tools on which to base future biotechnological approaches.  Full details


Comparison of quality and dynamics of anti-BTV immunoglobulin subclasses in BTV infected and/or vaccinated cattle and/or sheep

Bluetongue virus (BTV) is a pathogen of ruminants (including sheep, cattle, goats and deer) which is transmitted by Culicoides biting midges. Whilst BTV is known to cause significant clinical disease in sheep, the disease is typically milder or even asymptomatic in cattle. The serological immune response of ruminants to BTV infection has been poorly explored and assumed to be the same across its ruminant hosts despite clear differences in the clinical disease observed in sheep versus cattle. The only commercial BTV serological assay currently available detects antibodies against the BTV group-specific viral protein, VP7, however can only confirm prior exposure to either BTV infection or vaccination. The detection of these anti-VP7 antibodies does not offer any information on how long ago the animal was infected/ vaccinated, cannot distinguish between infected or vaccinated individuals or if the animal will be protected from re-infection. Therefore new serological assays are required to investigate additional immune response parameters which will enable improvement to future BTV vaccine development and implementation of disease control measures in the field during BTV outbreaks.

In this project we propose to advance the current knowledge of ruminant anti-BTV immune responses and investigate the following hypothesis: “Antibody isotype dynamics and quality against several BTV proteins differ between BTV-infected and vaccinated sheep and cattle”.  Full details


A synthetic biology approach to assess epitope conservation in the foot-and-mouth disease capsid

Foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV) is a high consequence pathogen responsible for FMD, a ruminant disease of global significance in terms of trade as well as food production. Although FMDV is exotic to the UK, outbreaks of FMD routinely occur in endemic regions such as Africa and Asia. The control of FMDV in endemic nations relies upon vaccination against circulating strains of the causative virus. However, in common with many RNA viruses, FMDV evolves rapidly, meaning that matching the correct vaccine to the correct virus is highly challenging. A key component of the response to vaccination is the development of antibodies against the virus which block (neutralize) virus infection. The outermost shell (capsid) of FMDV comprises four proteins – VP1-VP4 – of which VP1-3 are exposed on the capsid surface. Neutralizing sites have been identified within all three exposed viral proteins. However, the most frequently identified region responsible for neutralizing activity is the GH loop located within VP1. The GH loop contains a conserved arginine-glycine-aspartic acid (RGD) motif which is fundamental to the natural route of infection via the αvβ6 integrin receptor expressed on the surface of cells. Increasing our knowledge about the role the GH loop plays in the generation of antibodies – especially strongly binding (high affinity) antibodies – will help us to refine how we view FMDV antigenicity.

In this project the student will use two key methods - phage immunoprecipitation sequencing (PhIP-seq) and bio-layer interferometry (BLI) to investigate the binding of antibodies to the GH loop of the capsid. Historically, many studies have focused upon a single virus strain. However, advances in synthetic biology mean that it is now feasible to commercially generate a diverse library of representative sequences for concurrent analysis.  Full details


Role of antibody-mediated opsonisation of FMD virus in FMD vaccine-induced protection

Foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV) causes an important disease of cloven-hoofed livestock in many countries around the world. Vaccines against FMDV have been developed and the antibody response generated by vaccination is thought to be a crucial determinant of protection from disease by preventing the virus binding to its cognate receptor (virus neutralisation). However, an additional function of antibodies, known as opsonisation, is not measured by traditional assays and is thought to play a role in FMDV protection. Non-neutralising antibodies can “tag” viruses for recognition and processing by the host immune system in order to generate a more effective response. This project will investigate the contribution of opsonising antibodies, in the serum of FMDV vaccinated and infected animals, to the total antibody response.  Full details


How do insects acquire lumpy skin disease virus from skin lesions on cattle?

Lumpy skin disease virus (LSDV) is a high consequence poxvirus pathogen that targets the skin of cattle to cause lumpy skin disease. LSD is found in Africa and the Middle East and is emerging into Asia and Europe where it has caused substantial livestock and economic loss. Key gaps in our knowledge of LSD are currently hampering control efforts. For example the mode of transmission of LSDV is poorly understood. In order to address this knowledge gap this project will study how insect vectors acquire LSDV from the skin of cattle. Specifically, it will study the quantity and location of LSDV in the skin lesions of cattle and the quantity and location of LSDV in insects that have acquired the virus from these skin lesions.Full details

The Institute conducts a large proportion of its science studies under high containment conditions.  It is a condition of employment that no person working at The Pirbright Institute may keep any animals which are susceptible to foot-and-mouth disease or reside at premises where such animals are kept. "Susceptible animals" include cows, sheep, goats, deer, llamas, and all other cloven-hoofed animals. The quarantine period for all Restricted Areas is 72 hours - during this 72 hour period, it is not permitted to have close contact with susceptible animals. In high containment areas the Institute implements a number of procedures in order to comply with strict biosafety legislation. Access procedures for these areas requires all personnel to undertake a full change of clothes, including the removal of all jewellery and piercings, and completing two full body and hair washes when leaving high containment.

Scientists at the Institute may offer projects for students undertaking relevant taught MSc courses.  The minimum time that we can consider for such research projects is 3 months although 6-12 months is preferential.  Placements are unfunded although we can offer accommodation in our Institute housing at a significantly reduced rate.

UK Masters Loans:

Masters degree loans are now available across the UK.  For full details please visit: 

If you require further information, please contact Dr Lynda Moore, Head of Academic Affairs & Training (

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