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EASTBIO Elucidating the structural and functional basis of genetic variation through meiotic recombination during crop breeding.

School of Biological Sciences

Dr O Davies , Dr I Colas Wednesday, January 06, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Our food security depends on the ability to grow crops in increasingly challenging environments owing to population growth and climate change. For centuries, we have depended on the genetic shuffling of meiotic recombination to enable selective breeding programmes to optimise the growth rate and yield of crops in local environments. However, this is limited by the natural rate and location of recombination sites, which occur mainly at the ends of long chromosomes in wheat and barley, meaning that 60-80% of their chromosomal regions rarely recombine. This substantially limits the number of genes that can be exchanged and thereby participate in breeding. If we could control this process, it would become possible to explore wider genetic varieties and thus breed crops with improved characteristics for our changing environment.

The synaptonemal complex (SC) is a supramolecular protein assembly that synapses together homologous chromosome pairs during meiosis and provides the three-dimensional environment for recombination and genetic exchange. As a zipper-like structure that polymerises along the chromosome length, the SC performs a critical role in determining the location and number of recombination sites that undergo genetic exchange. However, we currently lack the mechanistic understanding necessary to manipulate and thereby exploit the SC’s function to alter the pattern of genetic exchange during crop meiosis.

This project aims to uncover the molecular structure of the SC and its functional interaction with recombination sites in crops. We will utilise complementary systems of wheat and barley, which have critical functional differences that will aid discovery and provide distinct avenues for exploitation. We will study known SC components in wheat and barley (ZYP1 and ASY1) and will identify novel components through bioinformatics, transcriptomics and interaction studies. We will determine the structure of SC proteins and assemblies through X-ray crystallography and Cryo-EM, alongside solution biophysics including light and X-ray scattering (MALS and SAXS). In parallel, we will study their location, dynamics and mutant phenotypes in vivo through plant genetics, cellular imaging and advanced EM imaging within cells.

This PhD will be based primarily in Dr Owen Davies’ laboratory at the University of Edinburgh, where biochemical, structural biology and imaging experiments will be performed, and will involve visits and placements in Dr Isabelle Colas’ laboratory at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee for plant genetics and cell biology experiments. The project will directly interact with our ongoing work on the role of the SC in human infertility (Dunce et al 2018 NSMB, 25(7), 557–569; Sánchez-Sáez et al 2020 Science Advances, 6(36), eabb1660) and the wider mechanics of chromosome synapsis and recombination in crops (Colas et al 2017 Front. Plant Sci, 8, 1235). It will form part of international collaborations with researchers in Europe and USA, and as part of the International Barley Hub (IBH) that includes breeders, farmers, industry and academics.

The outcome of this work will be an unprecedented mechanistic understanding of how the SC regulates recombination in crops, which will provide the essential knowledge for enhancing crop diversity to meet the increasing challenges of our food supply.

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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 fees. The fee difference will be covered by the University of Edinburgh for successful international applicants. Please refer to UKRI website (View Website) and Annex B of the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions (View Website) for full eligibility criteria.

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