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Evolution of the Mediterranean flora – squills, bluebells, and grape hyacinths


School of Biological Sciences

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Dr A Culham No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Expressions of interest comprising a cover letter and curriculum vitae are invited by 30th June for a proposed project between the University of Reading and Royal Horticultural Society, to begin, full-time, in October 2020.

The supervisory team will comprise Alastair Culham (University of Reading), John David (Royal Horticultural Society) and Kálmán Könyves (RHS).

The Mediterranean basin is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots yet patterns of distribution and diversification of species that are key to maintaining this biodiversity are still poorly understood. The steady rise in population and urban development makes the area at particular risk of biodiversity loss. Recent meta-analyses (Escudero et al. 2017; Vargas et al. 2018) indicate Mediterranean species diversification may have started in the mid Cenozoic, before the formation of the Mediterranean climate zone. Limited availability to biologists of appropriate climate models has restricted the interpretation of diversification as a function of climate change in the pre-Mediterranean-climate period. Two current projects in my lab that investigate the evolution of the Mediterranean flora and role of climate change in the diversification of geophytic plants use Cyclamen and Narcissus as model systems. This project will focus on the evolutionary history of Hyacinthinae, a group of geophytes in the Mediterranean many of which are widely cultivated as garden plants.

The Hyacinthinae contains about 265 species, grouped into between eight and 21 genera based on available morphological data (Speta, 1998; Gabari, 1971). While molecular data (Pfosser & Speta 1999, Ali & al. 2012) broadly support the higher number of genera, further research is required to resolve relationships more precisely. This uncertainty is significant for the interpretation of the evolution of the group, as well as in determining the correct names to use for well known plants such as the bluebell.

This project will develop a phylogenetic tree for Hyacinthinae using genomic data and a more comprehensive sampling of taxa to test whether the results of the two previous molecular studies are supported. The student will use the techniques of phyloclimatic modelling to bring together Hyacinthinae phylogeny, niche preferences, and Cenozoic palaeoclimate models to understand more general patterns of distribution in Mediterranean species. Previous work by Yesson & Culham on Cyclamen, in the Eastern Mediterranean suggested a range of physical factors including orogeny and climate influenced speciation that will be explored further in this project.

There is a substantial prior dataset on Hyacinthinae built up through undergraduate projects at the University of Reading and longer-term work at the Royal Horticultural Society. The long standing and proven collaboration between the RHS and University of Reading Herbarium give us a team with a track record of working collaboratively. Budget is planned for next-generation sequencing work within the studentship and additional funds for fieldwork can be raised through co-sponsorship. The student will therefore have access to unrivalled expertise, resources and an outstanding and supportive working environment in both the newly developed RHS National Centre for Horticultural Science and Learning at RHS Wisley and the new Health and Life Sciences Building at the University of Reading.

Applicants need a keen interest in plants and the study of evolution. You will work as part of a larger team and both gain and contribute to training to further scientific knowledge. You will need a relevant BSc or MSc qualification. Two references will need to be provided.

Informal enquiries to [Email Address Removed].

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