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  NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2024 Entry - The evolution of eukaryotic gene order: Following the birth, life and death of a eukaryotic gene cluster


  , ,  Tuesday, January 09, 2024  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

About the Partnership

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science.

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £18,622 p.a. for 2023-24) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
  • Payment of university tuition fee;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses

Project details

Project Background

How are eukaryotic genomes organised? How are they evolving? How are genes ordered along chromosomes? Does gene order matter for sustainable applications? These are the questions at the heart of this PhD project that combines experimental evolution, genomics, chromatin genetics and biotechnology to improve our fundamental understanding of eukaryotic genome evolution and to expand the design principles in synthetic biology.

In our project, you will study the real-time evolution of metabolic pathway genes in yeasts. Fungi and yeast produce a vast variety of metabolites (or natural products). These complex molecules have important ecological functions in the interaction between microbes and the environment. In addition to their ecological functions, natural products are major sources of pharmaceuticals and other high-value compounds. The repertoire of natural products found in fungi and yeasts is highly diverse, each species and even strain having its own pool of molecules to cope with the demands of its environmental niche. The genes for the synthesis of large numbers of natural products are rapidly evolving and physically co-localised in so called ‘gene clusters’. But how these clusters come about and evolve so rapidly is entirely unknown.

Project Aims and Methods

Here, we propose to follow the real-time evolution of the pulcherriminic acid gene cluster as model system to study the evolution of gene order in eukaryotes. This cluster is present in distantly related yeasts and provides host species with growth advantages under iron-limiting conditions and in competition with other microbes. Pulcherriminic acid has recently become of interest to the biotech industry as a biocontrol agent. 

The project will be divided into three subprojects:

(i) A large-scale phylo-genomic analysis of the distribution of pulcherriminic acid genes across microbial genomes. Here, we will apply a comprehensive bioinformatic analysis to evaluate natural evolution of this cluster with a particular focus on the origin of genes, the distribution of transposable elements, the possibility of horizontal gene-transfer and the frequency of gene loss. 

(ii) An experimental evolution approach to optimise pulcherriminic acid production in Metschnikowia pulcherrima and to analyse gene cluster organisation over time. M. pulcherrima is a natural high-producer of pulcherriminic acid and the associated cluster of biosynthesis genes has recently been identified in DH’s lab as part of ongoing work to use the yeast in industrial applications. To mimic different selection pressures, we will grow M. pulcherrima under high and low iron growth conditions and in co-cultivation with Escherichia coli for multiple yeast generations. We will then analyse pulcherriminic acid production under standard conditions and monitor the genomic organisation of pulcherriminic acid biosynthesis genes. 

(iii) An experimental evolution approach to study the birth and structural trajectory of a gene cluster. Here, we will employ Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a yeast that is not producing pulcherriminic acid, as model system. We will introduce pulcherriminic acid biosynthesis genes into the genome of S. cerevisiae as clustered genes, as non-clustered genes and as partly clustered genes. We will use different strain backgrounds with mutations in key recombination, DNA repair and gene regulatory pathways. Using initial fitness assessment as a guide we will evolve each strain for multiple generations in selective and non-selective conditions and analyse the genomic organisation of our target genes.

Altogether, the proposed project will provide an interdisciplinary research experience to the student and contribute to our fundamental understanding of genome evolution. 

In this project, the prospective student will actively participate in the design of the project and is encouraged to bring in their own research ideas.

Candidate requirements

Prospective students should be curious about genomes and genome evolution. Basic bioinformatic and/or molecular biology skills are beneficial.

Project partners 

The project will be based at the Biosciences Department, University of Exeter, the Milner Centre for Evolution, University of Bath, and the School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol. Across the three locations, the prospective student will have access to world leading expertise in evolutionary biology, genomics, bioinformatics and synthetic biology. Active PhD student communities and host groups with diverse backgrounds and scientific interests will enable the incoming student to settle and thrive in a stimulating environment. 


This project offers training opportunities in bioinformatics, genome biology and molecular genetics. 

Background reading and references

Nützmann H.W., Scazzocchio, C., Osbourn, A. (2018) Metabolic gene clusters in eukaryotes. Annu Rev Genet. 52: 159-183; Hurst, L. D., Pal, C. & Lercher, M. J., (2004) The evolutionary dynamics of eukaryotic gene order. Nat Rev Genet. 5, 4: 299-310; Krause D.J. et al Functional and evolutionary characterization of a secondary metabolite gene cluster in budding yeasts. (2018) Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 115(43):11030-11035; Hicks R.H., Sze Y., Chuck C.J., Henk D.A. (2020) Enhanced inhibitor tolerance and increased lipid productivity through adaptive laboratory evolution in the oleaginous yeast Metschnikowia pulcherrima. biorxiv

For further information and to apply please use this link - Award details | Funding and scholarships for students | University of Exeter

Biological Sciences (4)

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2024 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £18,622 per annum for 2023-24.

Register your interest for this project