Thursday, 13 October 2016

NERC PhD studentship available: Body plan evolution in plants

Supervisors: Dr Jill Harrison, University of Bristol (main supervisor); Dr Tom Williams, University of Bristol; Dr Gary Barker, University of Bristol
A range of multicellular plant forms.

Plants and animals both evolved complex multicellular forms from a unicellular ancestor shared around 1.6 billion years ago. Whilst animal body plans are determined by cell shape, adhesion and movement during embryo development, plant cells cannot move and body plans are instead determined by cell division and growth throughout development [1]. Plant body plans range from tiny string or mat-like forms that grow across a surface to massive multilayered upright forms with complex organ systems such as shoots, roots and leaves. Despite these wide differences, many of the gene families involved are very ancient, predating the radiation of plant body plans. This raises questions about the nature of genetic change driving body plan innovations.
For the first time, new model systems across the plant tree of life have opened the possibility of identifying the genes involved in plant evolution [2]. To date this has been done by transferring knowledge of flowering plant development to other species on a gene-by-gene basis. However, this approach is biased and places undue weight on the knowledge that we already have.
This project aims to use novel bioinformatic approaches [3,4] to unlock plant body plan evolution by wholesale, genome-wide identification of genes associated with specific innovations.
The project will involve:
1.     Plant collection and growth
2.     DNA extraction, genome sequencing and genome annotation
3.     Data mining and bioinformatic analysis
4.     Targeted analyses of gene function.
Whilst animal body plans radiated in Cambrian seas, plant body plans radiated on land during the Devonian era. Results from your project will pinpoint the genetic changes that generated the terrestrial biosphere.
By combining distinct bioinformatic and wet lab skill sets, the project will provide training at the cutting edge of the plant evo-devo field. The techniques you learn will be broadly applicable in academic biology and biotech sectors. The skills you learn will be widely transferable to other areas such as science policy, publishing, computing and finance.
Application: The scholarship is open to UK and EU applicants, and the deadline is 6 January 2017. The application form and guidelines are available here at the address below:
Further information:
Please see or e-mail Jill Harrison ( with any questions about the project or for access to the papers below.
Further reading:
[1] Meyerowitz EM (2002). Plants compared to animals: the broadest comparative study of development. Science 295: 1482-148.
[2] Harrison CJ (2016). Developmental and genetic changes in the evolution of land plant body plans. Accepted for publication in Phil Trans R Soc B.
[3] Szöllősi GJ et al. (2013). Efficient exploration of the space of reconciled gene trees. Syst Biol 62: 901-912.
[4] Williams et al. (2015) New substitution models for rooting phylogenetic trees. Phil Trans R Soc B 20140336.

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