Harnessing the power of plant social interactions to breed better rice

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr David Fisher, Dr G Norton  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Applications are invited for this exciting, fully funded, 42 month PhD studentship at the University of Aberdeen. This project is part of The newly established Anthony & Margaret Johnston Centre for Doctoral Training in Plant Sciences enabled by a generous legacy gift.

Project Description

Increasing the amount of food we get from crop plants (their “yield”) is essential to feed the world’s growing population. However, given the biodiversity crisis increasing the area planted is not a long-term solution, and so we need to create more efficient and productive crop plants. Unfortunately, evolved changes of yield for most crops have plateaued, which is a huge problem. Simultaneously, we need to breed plants that are more resistant to variation in nutrient availability to help maintain robust food supplies in countries with different planting conditions and as climates change.

When selecting for increased yields, the correlated evolution of increased competitive interactions can completely stop the expected evolutionary change in total yield, as plants selected for increased production may cause their neighbours to produce less through increased resource competition. Such competitive interactions are underpinned by “indirect genetic effects” (IGEs), which refer to the genes of one plant influencing the characteristics of its neighbours. When IGEs prevent yield increases, plant breeders face a huge waste of time and resources. Understanding how important IGEs are, which life stages they manifest, the conditions that influence their importance, and the genes underlying any negative competitive effects is therefore essential for breeding crop plants that can feed tomorrow’s populations. However, while appreciation is growing about how much plants interact and even communicate with their neighbours, IGEs are still very much underappreciated.

Selection that accounts for and reduces negative competitive effects should give progeny that produce higher yields from the same resources, i.e., they are more efficient. By estimating IGEs in scenarios where different key nutrients are limited (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorus), we can identify which nutrients are most limiting when plants compete. We can then explore the mechanisms through which plants compete for these limiting nutrients and then devise approaches to develop crops that are more resilient to conditions where these nutrients are at a low level.

This project will use the understanding of IGEs to investigate how we can develop strains of rice with increased yields, efficiency, and resilience to variation in nutrient availability. Rice is a really important plant to study this in as it is a staple crop for billions of people and is known to interact and compete with neighbouring plants. The student will conduct a series of controlled experiments using the extensive collection of rice cultivars at the University of Aberdeen. They will measure morphological and physiological traits in each plant and use this information to estimate direct and indirect genetic effects, how IGEs contribute to evolutionary change, and related questions. Using this information, the student will design selection regimes to produce new rice strains that will help feed the world.

Informal enquiries would be welcomed for a discussion. Please contact Dr David Fisher ([Email Address Removed]) for further information.

Student Background

Essential: 2:1 UK Honours degree (or international equivalent) in a plant sciences related degree OR an evolutionary biology related degree.

If a previous background in plant sciences, then a keen interest to learn tools from evolutionary biology. If background in evolutionary biology, then keen interest to learn botany. In either case a passion for both discovering fundamental aspects of the natural world and applying our insights to solve important applied problems.

Desired: Experience with or knowledge of quantitative genetics, plant breeding, conducting experiments in controlled conditions, plant resource use.


  • Formal applications can be completed online: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/pgap/login.php
  • You should apply for Biological Sciences (PhD) to ensure your application is passed to the correct team.
  • Please clearly note the name of the supervisor and project title on the application form. If you do not mention the project title and the supervisor on your application it will not be considered for the studentship.
  • Please include a cover letter specific to the project you are applying for, an up-to-date copy of your academic CV, and relevant educational certificates and transcripts.
  • Please note: you DO NOT need to provide a research proposal with this application
  • General application enquiries can be made to [Email Address Removed]

Funding Notes

This 42 Month PhD project is part of the Anthony & Margaret Johnston Centre for Doctoral Training in Plant Sciences at the University of Aberdeen.
This opportunity is open to Home / UK students only (this includes EU nationals that hold UK settled or pre-settled status) and includes full funding to cover tuition fees, research costs and a stipend at the UKRI rate (£16,062 For the 22/23 academic year).
We are hoping to commence this project as soon as possible.


• Costa e Silva, J., B. M. Potts, P. Bijma, R. J. Kerr, and D. J. Pilbeam. 2013. Genetic control of interactions among individuals: Contrasting outcomes of indirect genetic effects arising from neighbour disease infection and competition in a forest tree. New Phytol. 197:631–641.
• Muir, W. M. 2005. Incorporation of competitive effects in forest tree or animal breeding programs. Genetics 170:1247–1259.
• Onishi, K., N. Ichikawa, Y. Horiuchi, H. Kohara, and Y. Sano. 2018. Genetic architecture underlying the evolutionary change of competitive ability in Asian cultivated and wild rice. J. Plant Interact. 13:442–449.
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