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Do plants always have to behave that way? Understanding the evolution of root behaviour and its effects on fitness in flowering plants on Mount Etna, Sicily - NERC GW4+ DTP

Project Description

A fundamental issue in biology is understanding how: (1) organisms behave in different environments to maximise their fitness; (2) how these decisions compromise other aspects of their present and future phenotype (known as “trade offs”), and; (3) How much genetic variation there is in (1) and (2), and therefore how quickly organisms evolve new life histories in the face of environmental change.

Understanding such trade offs is crucial because they help to explain why organisms evolve to use particular habitats and habits (presumably because some trade offs are genetically or ecologically fixed), and why there are limits to the range of environments a single genotype can use (presumably because maintaining flexibility during an organism’s lifetime is costly). We will address these questions using two species of Senecio daisies, which grow along an elevational gradient on Mount Etna, Sicily, characterised by predictable changes in soil type and climate, with corresponding changes in key traits such as root behaviour and its relationship to shoot growth, leaf form, and plant physiology, and plasticity.

These project will help us to understand how easily evolutionary trajectories, and the sensitivity of organisms, may change in novel environments. This has important implications for the evolution of ecological communities and their resilience in the face of climate change, and how effective artificial selection of plant crops can slow soil erosion or improve water use efficiency.

The aims and methods used the project will evolve depending on the student’s interests and choice of research direction, as well as what the data dictates. However, we envisage three main aims:

(1) Estimate variation among genotypes, populations, and species in root behaviour in Senecio on Mount Etna, and explore how these trade off against other key aspects of fitness such as water use efficiency, root strength, above ground growth rate, and resistance to fungal pathogens. This will involve use of root pouches to assay root growth rates and behaviour, an approach recently pioneered at Bristol.

(2) Test for phenotypic plasticity in these genotypes by assaying key traits and how they change across a range of soil types and temperature regimes typical the different elevations these populations experience on Mount Etna. These data will be used to predict how environmental variation will affect the trait correlations, and the levels of genetic variation (and evolutionary potential) in these populations. These data will test whether trade offs in life histories are constant within genotypes (i.e. across environments), and how much they vary in their strengths across genotypes and populations.

(3) Use existing gene expression data for these same genotypes (data sourced from an ongoing NERC project) to understand the genetic basis of this plasticity, and relate

Funding Notes

This is a competition funded project through the NERC GW4+ DTP. There is a competitive selection process. This studentship will cover fees, stipend and research costs for UK students and UK residents. For more information on eligibility please see: View Website

We are looking for an enthusiastic student with a deep interest in evolutionary biology, and in understanding how populations evolve in nature. An interest in plant ecology, and experience of working with plants would also be an advantage, although is not necessary. All other training will be provided.


(1) Brennan AC, Bridle JR et al. (2009). Adaptation and selection in the Senecio hybrid zone on Mount Etna, Sicily. New Phytologist 183: 702-715.

(2) Chevin, LM, Hoffmann, AA (2017) Evolution of phenotypic plasticity in extreme environments. Phil Trans Roy Soc, Lond B. 372 (1723)

(3) Nicotra AB et l. (2010). Plant phenotypic plasticity in a changing climate. Trends in Plant Science 15: 684-692.

How good is research at University of Bristol in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 64.60

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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