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EASTBIO Time to hatch and feed: Neuroendocrine mechanisms underpinning appetite in birds

Project Description

Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies / The Roslin Institute

Aim: This fascinating PhD project will investigate the crucial time in every bird’s life: the transition from imprisonment inside an egg shell, to life as a freely moving, feeding chick. The main question this PhD project asks is what neuroendocrine mechanisms regulate hatch and the transition to a feeding state? The outcomes will have significant implications for our basic understanding of avian early life and provide information to improve avian chick welfare in the poultry industry.

Background: Most wild birds will coordinate and hatch in a clutch at the same time of day, but what environmental factors determines this? Is there an internal biological clock driving hatching? Previous studies have demonstrated that clock genes likely play a key role in organising the anticipation of environmental changes and that the circadian system matures toward the end of incubation (Okabayashi et al 2003). To gain a better understanding of how the circadian system matures during development the project will investigate pre- and postnatal central and peripheral oscillators though the quantification of clock gene expression using RNAseq and qPCR in Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica). For all vertebrates an internal circadian biological clock coordinates the expression of biological rhythms and enables anticipation of the changing environment. Under most conditions, light is the most important exogenous factor that entrains the circadian system and allows organisms to anticipate daily natural environmental changes so this project will also determine the ontogeny of photoreception in quail.

Once hatched the birds must feed and regulation of feeding is a complex interaction between central and peripheral signalling governed centrally by the melanocortin system comprising of specific neuronal populations and circuits in the hypothalamus and brainstem. Surprisingly little is known about the central mechanisms regulating the onset of appetite in birds or indeed in early life. Despite conserved peptide signalling among vertebrates, there are some functional differences in the neuro-peptide mechanisms regulating feeding compared to mammals. This project will also investigate neural feeding circuitry development in early life (pre and post hatch) in Japanese quail. During the first 24-36 h post-hatch quail tend to live off their yolk sac until it is absorbed by the body. To date there is no empirical evidence to indicate if newly hatched chicks are in a state of hunger or indeed when appetite develops. The project will use an interdisciplinary approach including from behaviour, neurobiology and electrophysiology to molecular techniques, transcriptomics and mathematical modelling to describe feeding pathways and appetite regulation in the early life of birds.

Training: This interdisciplinary project offers an exciting opportunity for the student to learn a wide range of skills including experimental design, neurobiology, electrophysiology, molecular biology, behaviour, bioinformatics, modelling and statistical analysis of a range of types of data. The student will take the lead role in data collection, interpretation and drafting manuscripts for publication. The student will be encouraged to engage with other scientists to foster their own collaborations and attend and present their findings at UK and international conferences.

All candidates should have or expect to have a minimum of an appropriate upper 2nd class degree. To qualify for full funding students must be UK or EU citizens who have been resident in the UK for 3 years prior to commencement.

Funding Notes

Completed application form along with your supporting documents should be sent to our PGR student team at

Please send the reference request form to two referees. Completed forms for University of Edinburgh, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and the Roslin Institute project should be returned to by the closing date: 5th January 2020.

It is your responsibility to ensure that references are provided by the specified deadline.
Download application and reference forms via:
View Website


Okabayashi N, Yasuo S, Watanabe M, Namikawa T, Ebihara S, Yoshimura T. (2003) Ontogeny of circadian clock gene expression in the pineal and the suprachiasmatic nucleus of chick embryo. Brain Res. 990(1-2):231-4.
Boswell T & Dunn IC (2017) Regulation of Agouti-Related Protein and Pro-Opiomelanocortin Gene Expression in the Avian Arcuate Nucleus.
Front Endocrinol.13;8:75. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2017.00075

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