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Aging before birth: identifying influences of modifiable maternal lifestyle on telomere length

   Cardiff School of Biosciences

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  Prof R John, Prof D Baird  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The process of aging begins even before we are born, and there is gaining evidence that some individuals are born biologically older as a consequence of their exposure in utero to adversity. Since aging is associated with the increased risk of ill health, identifying modifiable factors which protect against premature aging could really improve human health and wellbeing throughout life. One marker of cellular aging is telomere length. Telomeres sit at the end of strands of DNA, like the protective caps on our shoelaces. The shortening of telomeres leads to senescence and cell death, and shorter telomere length is associated with some of the most common age‐related human disorders. Consequently, it is vitally important that we identify factors that influence telomere length, both positively and negatively.  

This study will explore the hypothesis that healthier lifestyles in pregnancy protect against the accelerated telomere shortening associated with exposure to prenatal adversity combining human pregnancy cohort studies with stem cell culture systems. Telomere length will be measured using Single Telomere Length Analysis (STELA), a technique developed at Cardiff University which provides high‐resolution single molecule data. Precision biomolecular analysis of telomeres in placenta and cord blood will be combined with the analysis of biological, dietary and biosocial data from two Welsh pregnancy cohort studies with over 500 samples to identify factors modifying telomere length. The student will then switch to 2D and 3D human stem cell culture systems to test the direct action of specific factors such as metformin and free fatty acids (FFAs) on telomere characteristics.

While many studies report associations between biomarkers of aging and telomere length, this will be the first study to experimentally test whether modifiable lifestyle factors directly influence telomere length in both embryonic stem cells and trophoblast stem cells with the potential for working with embryonic organoids. Through this work, the student will obtain evidence that we can protect future generations against premature aging supporting lifelong health, and reducing health inequalities.

Co Supervisor - Dr Ge Guo (University of Exeter)

Collaborators: Prof Takahiro Arima (Tohoku University, Japan) 


Applicants for a studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a Master’s degree or have significant relevant research or non-academic experience.

In addition, due to the strong mathematical component of the taught course in the first year and the quantitative emphasis in our projects, quantitative/mathematical experience is needed. This can be demonstrated through one or more of the following:

  • Undertaking units as part of your degree that have a significant quantitative/mathematical component*
  • Maths or Physics A-level (grade B and above)

*Significant mathematical component examples include; maths, statistics, bioinformatics.

Applicants must ensure they highlight their quantitative/mathematical background within their application and to upload any supporting evidence. Full criteria can be found here -

How to Apply

Application guidance:

Please read the Cardiff SWBio DTP programme information before completing your application.

  • Applications can be submitted here -
  • When completing your application, please list Doctor of Philosophy as the 'qualification' and 1 October 2023 as the 'start date'.
  • You will need to include the project you are applying to and the main supervisor as part of the application.
  • For funded studentships: When asked if you are intending to self-fund, please select No and within the text box list BBSRC South Bioscience DTP
  • You will need to submit a separate application for each project you wish to be considered for.

Full guidance notes

Funding Notes

A fully-funded four year SWBio DTP studentship will cover: a stipend* (at the standard UKRI rate; £16,062 per annum for 2022-2023), research and training costs
tuition fees **, additional funds to support fieldwork, conferences and a 3-month placement.
A limited number (up to 30%) of UKRI fully-funded studentships are available through the SWBio DTP, that applicants who would be classed as an International student are eligible for.
** International students will not be required to cover the difference between home and international tuition fees

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