Postgraduate Research Opportunities in Biology, PhDs

The School of Biology has a fully funded PhD studentship (The RB Cook Studentship) available to start in October 2015. Eight potential topics have been identified, and the studentship will be awarded to the applicant who shows the best potential.

Metabolic determinants of Crassulacean acid metabolism in tropical trees of the genus Clusia
Control of an invasive weed (Pirri pirri burr) on a National Nature Reserve
Risk analysis in plant conservation
Living on the edge: can adaptation at the edge of a species range accommodate rapid climatic change in a long-lived species?
Genetic diversity and evolution of nuclear restorer genes in gynodioecious Plantago species
Signalling events leading to the induction of crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) in facultative CAM-Plants
Exploiting plant-microbe interactions for improved crop health and tolerance to endophytic pathogens
Functional genomics to understand the response of wheat to aphid stress and to changes in microbial diversity

You must apply through the University’s online postgraduate application form. Only mandatory fields need to be completed. However, you will need to include the following information:

• insert the programme code 8020F in the programme of study section
• select ‘PhD School of Biology’ as the programme of study
• insert the studentship code BIO15 in the studentship/partnership reference field
• attach a covering letter and CV. The covering letter must state the title of the project, quote reference code BIO15 and state how your interests and experience relate to the project
• attach degree transcripts and certificates and, if English is not your first language, a copy of your English language qualifications
• Also send an email with the subject “RB Cook Application your name” attaching your CV and covering letter to

The studentship will cover maintenance and fees for EU students, but applicants who would incur international fees will need to show how they will meet the additional fees from their own funds.

The deadline for receiving applications is 27 March 2015. We expect interviews to be held in early April.

Applicants are encouraged to contact the supervisor(s) for further information or if they have any queries.



Below we present a list of possible (not funded) projects to give you an indication of our research areas. The symbol with the project explains the funding situation. For fee banding: see the University fee structure pages. Postgraduate Research Supervisors and their research areas can be found by clicking on the staff list or through the research areas page.

self funded students Self-funded students only

funded project, worldwideDirectly funded project, worldwide

Competition funded, worldwideCompetition funded project, worldwide

Exploring the potential of CAM plants as second-generation biofuel crops

Supervisor: Prof Anne M Borlandself funded students
Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) is a photosynthetic adaptation found in approximately 7% of plant species that improves the assimilation of carbon in water-limited habitats. The ability of CAM plants to produce high quantities of starch and sugars in above-ground biomass in arid marginal lands suggests their potential use as second-generation biofuel crops for the production of bioethanol. A number of projects are available to examine the environmental and genetic factors that influence carbohydrate storage and turnover in relation to carbon assimilation and biomass production in CAM species. Depending on the student’s interests, approaches to be adopted could include: physiological analyses of photosynthesis, water use efficiency and biomass production; biochemical analyses of carbohydrate metabolism, HPLC profiling of sugars and osmoprotectants; a genetic approach using transgenic technology to modify the expression of candidate genes controlling starch and sugar content.
Key words: Plant, photosynthesis, biofuels, CAM, starch, sugars, drought, arid habitats
Feeband: 2c

Establishing the functional role of vacuolar sugar transporters in plants under stress

Supervisor: Prof Anne M Borlandself funded students
In many crop plants, the leaf vacuole is an important source of sugars that are used for growth and the production of secondary compounds (eg. osmoprotectants) under conditions of drought and/or salinity. It is hypothesised that sugar transporters located on the vacuolar membrane play a key role in regulating carbohydrate partitioning between growth and the production of osmoprotectants, thereby influencing plant resistance to stress. This hypothesis will be tested by examining responses to abiotic stressors in a number of recently identified mutants with impaired expression of different vacuolar sugar transporters. Approaches to be employed will include physiological measurements of leaf gas exchange and growth characteristics as well as real-time PCR (polymerase chain reaction) for monitoring gene expression and high-performance liquid chromatography for analyses of sugars.
Key words: Plants, abiotic stress, salinity, drought, vacuole, sugars, photosynthesis
Feeband: 2c

What is the interaction of invasive plant species and native pollinators, and potential impact on native flora?

Supervisor: Dr Roy Sandersonself funded students
The aim of this project is to investigate the pollination ecology of several widespread invasive species such as Rhododendron ponticum and Impatiens glandulifera. These are frequently visited by native pollinators, particularly species of bumblebees. How dependent on pollination are these species for their seed set and spread? What is the impact on the seed set of native species of plants nearby the invasives – are they suffering from a loss of pollination? Does the landscape pattern of the invasive species have an impact on pollinator behaviour. The student may wish to undertake a mixture of experimental, field and modelling work to investigate this broad topic area.
Key words: Pollination, invasive species, interactions, bumblebees, modelling
Feeband: 2a

Spatio-temporal dynamics of disease in heterogeneous systems

Supervisor: Prof Steven Rushtonself funded students
The aim is to analyse the spatio-temporal dynamics of disease in heterogeneous systems. The student will use a range of statistical and process-based modelling approaches to investigate the dynamics of livestock, wildlife or human disease. Current diseases of interest with in the research group are concerned with bovine TB, atypical mycobacterial infections, hospital acquired infections (MRSA) and Campylobacter in broilers and the student may wish to develop a research project in one or more of these topics.
Key words: epidemiology, modelling, spatial, statistical, wildlife, invasive
Feeband: 2a

Spatial dynamics of mammals and invasive species

Supervisor: Prof Steven Rushtonself funded students
Predicting when species will become invasive and why they do so is difficult. This project is concerned with analysing this problem using a range of modelling approaches.
Key words: epidemiology, modelling, spatial, statistical, wildlife, invasive
Feeband: 2a

The maintenance of gynodioecy in the genus Plantago: evolutionary and population genetics aspects

Supervisor: Dr Kirsten Wolffself funded students
Gynodioecy is a fairly common sex phenotype polymorphism with hermaphrodites and male sterile (female) plants occurring in populations. Mitochondrial mutants together with nuclear restorer genes interact to maintain this polymorphism. Many Plantago species have a wide range of mating systems, from outbreeding to selfing and many of the species are stably gynodioecious.
We know very little about mitochondrial haplotype diversity and even less about the nuclear restorer genes in Plantago.
A number of evolutionary forces are important for generation and maintenance of the polymorphism, from mutations to density and frequency dependent selection. To understand more about the maintenance of sex phenotype polymorphism a wide range of studies are needed, from crossing designs and fitness studies, field studies, molecular evolution to gene expression experiments.
Keywords: Gynodioecy, mitochondrial DNA variability, Plantago, mating systems, population genetics
Feeband: 2c

Ecological genetics in Plantago: detecting and mapping genes under selection.

Supervisor: Dr Kirsten Wolffself funded students
Plantago species are grassland species, with populations showing clear ecotypic differentiation. This has been shown in P. major, a highly selfing species, as well as in P. lanceolata, an obligate outcrosser. It is not known how many genes are involved in the adaptation to habitats. It can be hypothesized that in P. lanceolata those genes are evenly spread over the genome, whereas in P. major genes are likely in a small number of linkage groups, forming co-adapted gene complexes. This is so because gene complexes in the outcrosser P. lanceolata will be broken up every generation, whereas gene complexes are able to form in the selfing P. major.
QTL mapping will highlight the number and location of QTLs and whether gene complexes can play a role in reproductive isolation of P. major ecotypes.
Also, selection can be detected by looking for effects of selective sweeps on diversity of microsatellites and in nuclear intron sequences in populations from contrasting habitats.
Keywords: Molecular markers, Plantago, QTL mapping, selective sweeps, ecotypic differentiation
Feeband: 2c

Use of antisense mRNA expression in the discovery of natural products.

Supervisor: Dr Jem Stachself funded students
This research project will investigate the use of antisense-based gene silencing in antibiotic-producing actinomycetes. The aim is to use a random shotgun cloning approach to simultaneously identify antibiotic regulatory and biosynthetic genes. The project will involve developing a paired-termini expressed antisense methodology in model Streptomyces species to control the production of antibiotic production, prior to application with novel actinomycete species. Strains expressing antisense RNA will be screened for the production of antibiotics by whole cell killing assays, high-performance liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. The antisense expressing strains will be compared against the wild-type species to evaluate the affect of antisense expression on antibiotic production.
Feeband: 3

Use of antisense in the development of strains sensitized for the identification of novel antimicrobial compounds.

Supervisor: Dr Jem Stachself funded students
This research project will investigate the use of antisense expressing bacteria for the identification of novel antibiotics. The aim of the project is to construct E. coli strains that express antisense RNA complementary to essential genes. The resulting strains will be hyper-sensitized to inhibition of the cognate protein, enabling highly sensitive detection of antimicrobial compounds. The project will involve constructing a number of antisense expressing strains and screening against a large library of antibiotic producing actinomycetes. The project will also involve preliminary identification of any novel antibiotics identified using this methodology.
Feeband: 3

Understanding food choices between organic and conventional foods

Supervisor: Prof Mark Whittinghamself funded students
Work by a NERC funded PhD project due to finish shortly has found preferences by birds for food grown under organic vs conventional treatments. This project will help further elucidate why animals differentiate between organic and conventionally grown food and will extend this work to other taxa. You will gain practical experience, e.g. identification skills, with birds in the wild and in the laboratory, learn about experimental design and statistical analyses and learn how to present your work.
Feeband: 2a

Ecology of starlings and tipulids

Supervisor: Prof Mark Whittinghamself funded students
A long term study population of starlings in Fair Isle has established a large colour-ringed population. Recent work by my group has established basic ecological relationships between habitat, food and breeding starlings. This project will extend this work and examine population changes linked to Tipulids on Fair Isle and elsewhere. Starlings are representative of a guild of ground-probing bird species and so the results of the project will be of interest to a range of bird species and can inform conservation management.
You will gain practical experience, e.g. identification skills, with birds in the wild, learn about experimental design and statistical analyses and learn how to present your work.
Feeband: 2a