Ecology and Evolution research student at University of Leeds

Leandro Patino

Please tell us the title of your PhD?

Parasites as tools for biogeography and population history of Galapagos giant tortoises (Chelonoidis nigra ssp.)

What research are you undertaking?

I’m studying the parasites dwelling the blood and intestines of Galapagos giant tortoises.

What is the purpose of your research?

I’m characterizing the parasites infecting these tortoise species, and investigating whether tortoises inhabiting different islands of the Galápagos differ in the composition of their intestinal nematode worm communities. I’m interested in how intrinsic (host age, host behaviour) and extrinsic factors (altitude, vegetation) influence the composition and distribution of these parasites. Ultimately as giant tortoises speciated, following a progressive colonization sequence from older to younger islands, I want to know if their parasites co-speciated with them.

How will this apply to real world applications?

The characterization of the parasites infecting a host species and the factors which influence the parasites distribution and parasite community composition have application in both epidemiology and conservation. From the epidemiological point of view the basic ecology of parasite dynamics are important for disease control programmes (in a wide range of species). From the conservation perspective, we think these nematode parasites do not harm their host most of the time, therefore we should also try to conserve them as an essential component of Galapagos biodiversity. Understanding the host-parasite relationships is necessary to prevent potential cross contamination of tortoise species with non-specific parasites in the captive breeding and repatriation programme established on the islands. In addition, it is known that some parasites evolve more quickly than the host, if it is the case with the tortoise nematode they could help to give additional insight into the evolutionary history of tortoise populations.

What facilities and specialise equipment do you use to help you carry out your research?

My study includes morphological and DNA analysis of parasites in blood and faecal samples. The morphological analysis is performed by microscope while the DNA analysis require the use of “DNA coping machines” for amplifying the parasites DNA, as well as DNA sequencing machines and specialist software for comparing and discriminating simultaneously the DNA of multiples parasites (e.g. helminth eggs from different species found in a faecal sample) from tortoise individuals and within and among tortoise species.

What do you particularly enjoy about your research?

I’m enjoying each phase of my project from the sampling trips to the Galápagos Island to the learning of advanced laboratory techniques and the data analysis useful for my work. I also enjoy networking with the wide range of people specialized in these research field.

Why did you choose to undertake a PhD? Why did you choose to do this at the University of Leeds

I wanted to learn how to perform internationally recognized research, to be able to transfer this knowledge and to help to increase the research capacity in my country of origin, Ecuador. I got a scholarship from the Ecuadorian Government to apply to any of the top Universities of the world, I chose the University of Leeds because it meets this standard, it does world leading research and I knew my supervisor beforehand from a collaborative project on the Galapagos.

What are your plans after you complete your PhD?

After finishing my PhD I expect to apply my skills doing high quality research in a field related to my area of expertise.

About the University

What have been the highlights of your time at the University of Leeds?

One of the best things of the University is the access to information and to create networking. I also love the city which is very safe, multicultural and affordable.

What are your ambitions for the future? Do you have specific career plans? Has the University (careers centre/lecturers etc.) helped you with these goals in any way?

I expect to do research in Ecuador and collaborate with colleagues across the world. The University of Leeds have been very supportive and have provided very good workshops for defining my career plans.

Tell us about the International Community and how it has helped you settle into University life?

The Faculty of Biological Sciences is placing important efforts in improving the international experience. It includes the organization of events for meeting students from different countries and cultures.