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DSTL UK-French studentship: Evolution in exploratory and selective developmental mechanisms

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  • Full or part time
    Prof K N Laland
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Co-supervised by Prof. Thomas Pradeu (CNRS & University of Bordeaux, Department of Biology and Health) and by Prof. Richard Watson (Computer Science, University of Southampton)

Living organisms must produce functional responses to highly diverse, complex and constantly changing inputs (e.g. immunological responses to rapidly evolving bacteria and viruses, or learned adjustments to quickly changing situations). Often organisms respond to such challenges through ‘exploratory mechanisms’, which are complex developmental systems that operate by generating variation (i.e. ‘exploring’ possibilities), largely at random, testing variants’ functionality, and selecting the best solutions for regeneration, in an iterative developmental process. The process of adaptation during development arising from exploratory mechanisms resembles adaptation by natural selection (a.k.a. ‘somatic selection’), except that it allows for ontogenetic information gain rather than the acquisition of genetic information.

Diverse biological processes function in this way. For instance, the adaptive immune system generates antibodies and T cells with initially random variation, then internal selection multiplies and refines those that bind successfully to antigens, with a memory of effective molecules retained. Much collective animal behaviour (e.g. central-place foraging), animal learning, the central nervous system, and the vascular system all operate on similar principles – exploiting exploratory and selective mechanisms to generate novel functional responses in development.

Exploratory processes enable rapid exploration of a large space of possibilities combined with feedback from the environment (e.g. reward/punishment) that allows for information gain during development. They have the advantage of flexibility, being tolerant of mutation, environmental novelty, noise, errors and injury. The resulting output (e.g. learned knowledge, antibodies) will typically be adaptive because it is informed by interactions with the recent, immediate environment. In such instances, “what the genome encodes is the means to explore, not the outcome of the exploration”.

Exploratory mechanisms are highly complex adaptive systems for which standard conceptions of developmental plasticity (e.g. reaction norms), and established mathematical approaches (e.g. quantitative genetics models), appear over-simplistic. In the absence of dedicated evolutionary models of exploratory mechanisms, science has only a modest understanding of how complex organisms with rich forms of plasticity (e.g. vertebrates) evolve. The absence of a dedicated body of theory focused on the two-way interaction of evolution and exploratory mechanisms makes it more difficult for evolutionary biologists to envision how organisms can impose direction on evolution, leading to much unresolved debate within the field.

A new general means of modeling how exploratory mechanisms evolve and, reflexively, how evolution is directed by such processes, is required. The student will join an interdisciplinary team comprising a biologist (Kevin Laland, University of St Andrews), a philosopher/immunologist (Thomas Pradeu, CNRS & University of Bordeaux) and a computer scientist (Richard Watson, University of Southampton) to help pioneer a new approach to modeling evolution in complex adaptive systems. Innovative computational models will test a range of hypotheses, including that exploratory mechanisms evolve in a qualitatively different manner from other forms of plasticity, that they bias behaviour in predictable ways, and that they shape the course of biological evolution. Analyses will explore adaptive processes simultaneously operating across two timescales (development and evolution), and interactions between exploratory mechanisms and auxiliary processes. The project will establish whether complex forms of developmental plasticity consistently produce adaptive phenotypes and direct evolutionary outcomes, and whether they evolve in a different way from simple forms of plasticity.

While based at the University of St Andrews, the student will make regular trips to Southampton University to work with computer scientist Prof. Richard Watson and to the University of Bordeaux to work with philosopher/immunologist Thomas Pradeu. During the first year Laland, Watson and the student will develop a formal computational model of exploratory processes, drawing on the Laland lab’s expertise in animal and human learning, and the complex social behaviour of humans and other animals. During the second year the student will spend 6-12 months in Thomas Pradeu’s lab, and he/she will use the opportunity to acquire expertise in adaptive immunity, refining and testing the model to evaluate its applicability to predicting immune responses. In the final year the student will extend the model to incorporate auxiliary systems, and we will evaluate the above hypotheses. The work will be written up as scientific papers and published in the highest impact journals, and presented at scientific conferences.

Funding Notes

The 4 year studentship is fully funded by the Defence and Security Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and covers fees, stipend, research costs and travel.

This funding opportunity is only available to British or French Nationals. The candidate will be required to spend a minimum of 6 months in the partner French University.

Suitable applicants will have a good first degree (First or Upper Second Class or equivalent) in Biology or Computer Science.

For further information contact Kevin Laland ([Email Address Removed]) or Linda Hall ([Email Address Removed]).


West-Eberhard MJ 2003. Developmental Plasticity and Evolution. Chapter 3 (Plasticity). Oxford University Press

How good is research at University of St Andrews in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 50.45

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

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