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EASTBIO Are rice nice to each other? Harnessing competitive interactions to breed better crops

School of Biological Sciences

Dr D Fisher , Prof A Price , Dr Rob Hancock Wednesday, January 06, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


Dr David Fisher(University of Aberdeen) &

Professor Adam Price (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Robert Hancock (James Hutton Institute)

Increased yields (food production) of crop plants are essential to feed the world’s growing population. However, evolved changes of yields for most crops have plateaued. We need to increase food production without destroying natural habitats. Selection for more efficient crop plants is therefore key. Crop plants are also continually exposed to pathogens which reduce harvests. Breeding more disease resistant plants will help maintain robust food supplies.

When selecting for increased yields, the correlated evolution of increased competitive interactions can reduce, remove, or reverse expected evolutionary change in total yield. Plants selected for increased production may cause their neighbours to produce less through increased resource competition (Muir 2005). Such competitive interactions are underpinned by “indirect genetic effects” (IGEs), which refer to the genes of one plant influencing the characteristics of neighbours. When IGEs prevent yield increases, plant breeders face a huge waste of time and resources. Understanding how important IGEs are, how they manifest (e.g. what life stage, for which plant traits), the conditions they are more or less important, and the genes underlying any negative competitive effects is therefore essential for breeding crop plants that can feed tomorrow’s populations.

Selection that accounts for and reduces negative competitive effects should give progeny that produce higher yields from the same resources. Breeding regimes that incorporate IGEs can therefore increase plant efficiency. Additionally, IGEs can contribute substantially to disease resistance, as genes for susceptibility in one plant can lead to infections in its neighbours (Costa e Silva et al. 2013). Harnessing selection accounting for IGEs to produce crop plants that avoid transmitting infections to their neighbours would revolutionise the resilience of food production systems.

This project will use the understanding of IGEs to investigate how we can develop strains of rice with increased yields, efficiency, and disease resistance. Rice is an excellent candidate as they are a staple crop for billions of people and are known to interact and compete with neighbouring plants. There has been some work to identify the genes underlying rice’s competitive interactions (Onishi et al. 2018) but how this genetic variation can contribute to the evolution of improved plants is unknown.

The student will conduct a series of controlled experiments using the extensive collection of rice cultivars at the University of Aberdeen. Work will be facilitated by access to next-generation controlled environments available in the Advanced Plant Growth Centre at the James Hutton Institute. They will measure morphological and physiological traits in each plant and use this information to estimate direct and indirect genetic effects, what phenotypic traits they relate to, and how IGEs contribute to evolutionary change. The student will also identify the genes underlying any prominent competitive effects. Using this information, the student will design selection regimes to produce new rice strains that will help feed the world.

Application Procedure:

Please send your completed EASTBIO application form, along with academic transcripts to Alison McLeod at . Two references should be provided by the deadline using the EASTBIO reference form. Please advise your referees to return the reference form to .

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership View Website. This opportunity is open to UK and International students and provides funding to cover stipend and UK level tuition (limited funding is available to provide international tuition fees). Please refer to UKRI website and Annex B of the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions for full eligibility criteria.

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2:1 UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in a relevant subject.


Costa e Silva, J., B. M. Potts, P. Bijma, R. J. Kerr, and D. J. Pilbeam. 2013. Genetic control of interactions among individuals: Contrasting outcomes of indirect genetic effects arising from neighbour disease infection and competition in a forest tree. New Phytol. 197:631–641.

Muir, W. M. 2005. Incorporation of competitive effects in forest tree or animal breeding programs. Genetics 170:1247–1259.

Onishi, K., N. Ichikawa, Y. Horiuchi, H. Kohara, and Y. Sano. 2018. Genetic architecture underlying the evolutionary change of competitive ability in Asian cultivated and wild rice. J. Plant Interact. 13:442–449.

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