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Ecological Function of a Water-sensing Molecular Fossil

Project Description

Abiotic stress tolerance in plants is a critical attribute and a key objective for plant breeders. The world is experiencing unprecedented increases in average global temperatures and extreme weather events leading to intermittent periods of drought and waterlogging (water stress). In addition, over-irrigation of agricultural land has resulted in increased salination of once productive arable soils. This has resulted in a situation in which farmers face problems of ensuring sufficient future agronomic productivity, because of the negative effects of climate change and salination on crop growth and development. In order to mitigate these problems, it is essential that we better understand how it is that plants respond to and adapt to abiotic stresses such as drought and salinity. Central to both water and salinity stresses is how plants go about regulating and optimising their use of water, and one of the most sensitive stages to water stress during a plant life cycle is the transition from seed to seedling: germination. This project will investigate the ecological variability in molecular mechanisms by which drought-tolerant and drought-susceptible barley land races respond to water or salinity stress particularly during germination but also during vegetative growth and reproduction. This will be contrasted with the same mechanisms in drought tolerant tropical cereals such as millet or sorghum.

We have recently identified a molecular sensor, and an associated MAP kinase signalling pathway that is critical for how plants respond to water stress. QQ21 is an osmosensor that is conserved in sequence all the way back to the first land plants (liverworts). This plasma membrane protein functionally complements mutations in the yeast osmosensor ShoI. In plants, QQ21 is highly expressed during seed development and germination and is upregulated by dormancy and abscisic acid. Mutations in the QQ21 gene results in plants with enhanced salt sensitivity during germination. Thus, variability in the levels of QQ21 expression or variability in the QQ21 gene and protein sequence may well underlie differences in drought and salt tolerance of plants during germination and later growth, and this is the hypothesis that will be explored.

The key aims of this project will be to: (i) identify allelic variation for barley in genes for a novel plant osmosensing pathway leading to abiotic stress tolerance; (ii) test the robustness of this tolerance in the field and by genetic complementation of stress compromised mutants; and (iii) carry out a comparison with stress tolerance mechanisms in tropical cereals.

For more details please see the full advertisement at: or contact:

All applicants should meet NERC’s eligibility criteria to be considered for an IAPETUS2 studentship and these are detailed in NERC’s current studentship handbook.

IAPETUS2 is looking for candidates with the following qualities and backgrounds:

- A first or 2:1 undergraduate degree, or have relevant comparable experience;
- Candidates may also hold or be completing a Masters degree in their area of proposed study or a related discipline;
- An outstanding academic pedigree and research potential, such as evidenced through the publication of articles, participation in academic conferences and other similar activities.

Applicants must apply to Heriot-Watt University via the online application form, select PhD Environment and include reference IAP2-18-103. You must provide a current CV, degree certificates and full transcripts, a research proposal in the form of a cover letter, no greater than 2 sides in length, detailing the reasons for applying and why you have selected the project. You must also provide two (or more) references, avoiding any references from any members of the supervisory team for project that they wish to conduct.

The selected applicant will proceed to an interview at the IAPETUS2 Studentships Panel, which will meet on Wednesday 20th February 2019. The studentship will commence in September/October 2019, except in exceptional circumstances.

Funding Notes

IAPETUS2’ postgraduate studentships are tenable for between 3-4 years, depending on the doctoral research project the student is studying and provides a tax-free maintenance grant set at the UK Research Council’s national rate, which in 2019/20 is £14,999 (pending confirmation), payment of tuition fees at the Home/EU rate and access to extensive research support funding. Part-time award-holders are funded for between six (6) and eight (8) years and receive a maintenance grant at 50% of the full-time rate.

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