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*EASTBIO* Developmental stress and biological rhythms: Improving our understanding of the evolutionarily conserved neural mechanisms that underlie the ability to adapt to environmental change

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  • Full or part time
    Dr K Spencer
    Dr T Stevenson
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Background: Seasonal changes in the environment are evident across the globe. Animals of all species use the presence of salient environmental cues to generate physiological responses, which in turn regulate seasonal rhythms in hormonal, immune and behavioural traits (1). Within a population there is significant variation in the ability or speed of individuals to respond to cues such as photoperiod, food availability or temperature and this translates into variation in the ability to match the timing of important life cycle events to appropriate environmental conditions. There is a wealth of evidence to show that such mismatches can significantly reduce health, well-being and reproductive output, however the mechanism that underpins this variation in the ability to respond to cues, and the impact across the lifespan is little understood.
Exposure to environmental stressors during development can have significant implications for many phenotypic traits in later life. So-called developmental programming has been studied in several contexts, including the role of stress in mediating long-term effects on health and wellbeing (2). Activation of the neuroendocrine axis that underlies the response to stress (the HPA, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) during sensitive developmental periods can alter an individual’s ability to cope with stress in later life. These events modify the HPA axis and may lead to disruptions in the ability to regulate stress hormones (3). However the impact of developmental stress on the neuroendocrine axis underlying the timing of seasonal biology is not well described. Using a comparative approach, this studentship will examine the role of developmental stress on long-term timing of neural, physiological and behavioural processes. The outcomes of the project will lead to a significant gain in our understanding of the evolutionarily conserved neural mechanisms that underlie the ability to adapt to environmental change.
Study specifics: This study aims to integrate information across these different levels: brain, physiology and behaviour to determine the influence of early life on an individual’s ability to respond to environmental cues, such as photoperiod, food availability and temperature, and maintain synchrony with internal seasonal processes. The studentship will test the hypothesis that environmental cues impart lasting molecular (i.e. DNA methylation) and hormonal effects on key regions within the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal/gonad axis. The project will determine the effects of early life on the neural and hormonal systems regulating the timing of behaviours. Additionally, the student may incorporate novel in vivo imaging techniques (i.e. light sheet microscopy) to identify the role of downstream hypothalamic neurosteroid and gonadal steroids on neuro-glial plasticity. Finally the project will investigate the potential epigenetic mechanisms that underlie the physiological and behavioural responses observed. The project will utilise multiple model species that have been studied extensively in terms of biological rhythms, including the Siberian hamster, Japanese quail and the potential for field based research on European starling.
Training: The successful student will have the opportunity to learn a wide range of techniques including genomic and molecular analyses, and whole animal physiology and behaviour. Specific training includes: experimental design, behavioural observation and analysis, complex statistical analyses, molecular (e.g. quantitative real time PCR, sodium bisulfite DNA/RNA methylation analysis; DNA sequencing) cellular (e.g. brain immunocytochemistry), hormone analyses (i.e. radioimmunoassay) and several novel, real-time imaging techniques. The work will mainly take place at the University of St Andrews and the student will be based within the active Mechanisms of Behaviour research group led by Dr Karen Spencer. In addition the student will also have the opportunity to work in the Stevenson laboratory in the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Aberdeen.

Funding Notes

This project is eligible for the EASTBIO Doctoral Training Partnership:

This opportunity is only open to UK nationals (or EU students who have been resident in the UK for 3+ years immediately prior to the programme start date) due to restrictions imposed by the funding body.

Apply by 5.00 pm on 5 December 2016 following the instructions on how to apply at:

Informal enquiries to the primary supervisor are very strongly encouraged.


1. Stevenson TJ, Visser ME, Arnold W, et al. Disrupted seasonal biology impacts health, food security and ecosystems. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2015;282:20151453.
2. Bateson P, Barker D, Clutton-Brock T, et al. Developmental plasticity and human health. Nature. 2004;430(6998):419-21.
3. Zimmer C, Boogert NJ, Spencer KA. Developmental programming: Cumulative effects of increased pre-hatching corticosterone levels and post-hatching unpredictable food availability on physiology and behaviour in adulthood. Hormones and Behavior. 2013;64(3):494-500.

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