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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

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 anorganism’s lifetime is costly). We will address these questions using two species of Seneciodaisies, 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 projects 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.

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 3.5 years.

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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