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EASTBIO How do epigenetic modifications affect evolution in phytoplankton?

  • Full or part time
    Dr S Collins
    Dr Attila Molnar
  • Application Deadline
    Sunday, January 05, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Epigenetic modifications, such as DNA methylation and histone modifications, affect how organisms respond to environmental changes such as light or temperature variation. This can happen within the lifetime of a single organism, but some epigenetic effects can also be transmitted between generations, and thus have the potential to influence not only how organisms respond physiologically to environmental cues within their lifetimes, but how lineages evolve over many generations. Modelling (Reference 1) and experimental (Reference 2) work in the Collins group has shown that epigenetic “mutations” have the potential to influence evolution, and that this has the potential to help us understand how primary producers in the ocean respond to changes such as warming (Reference 1). However, this and other models need to be tested. This project will use the CRISPR-Cas system to generate strains of a green alga (Chlamydomonas) (Reference 3) with modified epigenetic function. Using these mutants, we will then explore how epigenetic modifications affect adaptive evolution in warm and high-nutrient environments. This is relevant to understanding how phytoplankton, which form base of marine food webs, will respond to anthropogenically-driven environmental change. This impacts our ability to understand the bottom-up controls on resources such as wild fisheries. Understanding the fundamental mechanisms of acclimation and evolution in microalgae is also important for innovations in algal-based technologies such as biofuels and other high-value products.

This project is an opportunity to understand how epigenetics works at a number of different levels, from the molecular and genetic aspect (through work with the CRISPR-Cas system) to the physiological (by measuring how epigenetic knockouts change their growth and photophysiology in different environments) to the evolutionary (through laboratory evolution experiments). The project will provide an extremely broad base in terms of techniques and approaches, but will focus primarily on evolutionary frameworks as a way of understanding how epigenetics works, and experimental evolution will form the largest part of the project. This is question-driven (rather than methods-driven) project that will have opportunities to learn about molecular genetics, plant (algal) physiology, and global change biology. The student will also develop analysis, writing and communication skills through preparing work for publication, and by participating in outreach activities with the rest of the group.

Funding Notes

The “Visit Website” button will take you to our Online Application checklist. Complete each step and download the checklist which will provide a list of funding options and guide you through the application process. Follow the instructions on the EASTBIO website (you will be directed here from our application checklist), ensuring you upload an EASTBIO application form and transcripts to your application, and ticking the box to request references. Your referees should upload their references using the EASTBIO reference form, in time for the 5th January deadline so please give them plenty of time to do this by applying early.


1. Walworth, N.G., Zakem, E.J., Dunne, J.P., Collins, S., Levine, N.M. Hitting a moving target: Microbial evolutionary strategies in a dynamic ocean.

2. Kronholm, I., Bassett, A., Baulcombe, D., Collins, S. (2017) Epigenetic and genetic contributions to adaptation in Chlamydomonas. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 34(9):2285-2306.

3. Ferenczi, A., Pyott, D. E., Xipnitou, A., & Molnar, A. (2017). Efficient targeted DNA editing and replacement in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii using Cpf1 ribonucleoproteins and single-stranded DNA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(51), 13567-13572.

How good is research at University of Edinburgh in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 109.70

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