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  Building the vertebrate spine: the neck to thorax transition (MUNSTERBERG_U24DTP1)

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Prof A E Munsterberg  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Primary Supervisor: Professor Andrea Münsterberg  

Secondary Supervisor: Dr Wilfried Haerty (EI) 

Segmentation of the main body axis is a fundamental and conserved feature of all vertebrate embryos. It results in the metameric organization of the vertebral column and its associated muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. The vertebral column is produced by somites, transient aggregates of cells generated by unsegmented paraxial mesoderm (PSM) on each side of the neural tube. We have previously determined how gene expression is dynamically controlled along the anterior-posterior axis of developing chick embryos to generate the different sections of the spine. Using genome-wide methods, ATAC-seq and RNA-seq, we identified accessible chromatin and differentially expressed genes. We focused on the neck to thorax (C/T) transition, as the separation of the head from the forelimbs allowed its free movement, enabled adaptations and biodiversity. Thus, this region is of evolutionary importance. Furthermore,congenital malformations of the spine, such as a cervical rib, are associated with thoracic outlet syndrome in human. This can lead to pressure, causing pain and affecting visceral organs. This project will validate several novel markers associated with C/T axial identity, such as regulatory elements, protein coding genes and lncRNAs, and investigate their function in vivo. The conservation of genetic mechanisms will be examined by comparing embryos of avian species with shorter or longer necks, where the C/T transition has shifted along the axis. The student will gain highly transferable skills in gene editing and epigenome editing, embryology and development and bioinformatics through the completion of the objectives. The supervisory team has complementary expertise providing multidisciplinary training to support the successful student candidate, who should be motivated and curious. Scientific collaborations and conference attendance will be encouraged - in addition to opportunities offered by the DTP, UEA and the NRP. 

The Norwich Research Park (NRP) Biosciences Doctoral Training Programme (DTP) is offering fully-funded studentships for October 2024 entry. The programme offers postgraduates the opportunity to undertake a 4-year PhD research project whilst enhancing professional development and research skills through a comprehensive training programme. You will join a vibrant community of world-leading researchers. All NRPDTP students undertake a three-month professional internship placement (PIPS) during their study. The placement offers exciting and invaluable work experience designed to enhance professional development. Full support and advice will be provided by our Professional Internship team. Students with, or expecting to attain, at least an upper second class honours degree, or equivalent, are invited to apply. 

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the NRPDTP. Shortlisted applicants will potentially be interviewed on 4, 5, and 6 June 2024.

For further information on eligibility and how to apply visit here.

Our partners value diverse and inclusive work environments that are positive and supportive. Students are selected for admission without regard to gender, marital or civil partnership status, disability, race, nationality, ethnic origin, religion or belief, sexual orientation, age or social background. 

Entry requirements

At least UK equivalence Bachelors (Honours) 2:1 or UK equivalence Master's degree. English Language requirement (Faculty of Science equivalent: IELTS 6.5 overall, 6 in each category).

Start date

October 2024

Biological Sciences (4) Mathematics (25) Medicine (26)

Funding Notes

This project is awarded with a 4-year Norwich Research Park Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (NRPDTP) PhD studentship. The studentship includes payment of tuition fees (directly to the University), a stipend to cover living expenses (2023/4 stipend rate: £18,622), and a Research Training Support Grant of £5,000pa for each year of the studentship.


A transcriptional and regulatory map of mouse somite maturation. Ibarra-Soria X, Thierion E, Mok GF, Münsterberg AE, Odom DT, Marioni JC.Dev Cell. 2023 Jul 17:S1534-5807(23)00333-7. doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2023.07.003. Online ahead of print. PMID: 37499658
Investigating chromatin accessibility during development and differentiation by ATAC-sequencing to guide the identification of cis-regulatory elements. Smith EL, Mok GF, Münsterberg A. Biochem Soc Trans. 2022 Jun 30;50(3):1167-1177. doi: 10.1042/BST20210834. PMID: 35604124
Somite development and regionalisation of the vertebral axial skeleton. Weldon SA, Münsterberg AE.Semin Cell Dev Biol. 2022 Jul;127:10-16. doi: 10.1016/j.semcdb.2021.10.003. Epub 2021 Oct 22. PMID: 34690064
Characterising open chromatin in chick embryos identifies cis-regulatory elements important for paraxial mesoderm formation and axis extension. Mok GF, Folkes L, Weldon SA, Maniou E, Martinez-Heredia V, Godden AM, Williams RM, Sauka-Spengler T, Wheeler GN, Moxon S, Münsterberg AE.Nat Commun. 2021 Feb 19;12(1):1157. doi: 10.1038/s41467-021-21426-7. PMID: 33608545

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