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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 fluctuating environments.

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.

While this particular project is about epigenetics and adaptation, the Collins lab uses experimental evolution to understand how marine and freshwater phytoplankton evolve in rapidly changing environments (see our web page for more details). We work closely with marine microbiologists and modellers in ocean global change biology, and understanding primary production in changing oceans is the overarching goal of our lab. The student would thus also gain a good understanding of, and general introduction to, ocean global change biology and marine photosynthetic microbes.

This project is open to students who are eligible for Darwin Trust or other competitive self-funding. Collins lab web site:
Some of the work in this project will be carried out in Attila Molnar’s group (second supervisor).

Funding Notes

The “Visit Website” button on this page will take you to our Online Application checklist. Please complete each step and download the checklist which will provide a list of funding options and guide you through the application process.

If you would like us to consider you for one of our scholarships you must apply by 5 January 2020 at the latest.


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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