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Oak genetic diversity and co-adaptation with members of the food web

   Department of Biology

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  Prof John MacKay, Prof Ben Sheldon  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This project is part of the DPhil in Biology at the University of Oxford

Forest trees support food webs by providing both food and habitat to other organisms such as insects and birds, among others. Observations show that the phenotypic plasticity of trees responding to climate change may influence these relationships. Tree populations also hold high levels of standing genetic diversity which could impact the evolution of food webs, but this remains largely unexplored. This gap in understanding is crucial for conserving biodiversity and managing woodlands to sustain ecosystem functions. The forest science laboratory (Prof. J. MacKay) investigates the genetic basis of adaption in trees including climate matching and interactions with herbivores.

This project will study the genomic basis of phenology in the oak population at Wytham Woods near Oxford, working in collaboration with the Edward Grey Institute (Prof. B. Sheldon) with the aim of developing new insights into co-adaption between oaks and wild populations of insects and birds.

The research will use genome-wide association studies and monitor phenological variation in the annual growth cycle of oak trees, which is known to influence the life cycle of both insect herbivores and nesting birds. Genomic resources and methods are now available to efficiently scan the oak genome and uncover hundreds of thousands of variations in DNA structure. These can be linked to variation in phenology and analysed to reveal the underlying genomic architecture. In addition to tree phenology data collected by visual inspection and imaging, the nutritional properties of oak leaves will be of interest to characterise tree-herbivore interactions. The research will improve our understanding of tree genetics and its impacts at different scales of analysis from individual trees to whole stands and ultimately to the entire woodland.

This project is part of the Molecular Plant Biology theme in the Department of Biology.


This project is part of the DPhil in Biology programme, and is not a funded course at the University of Oxford, as such, students are expected to explore options for funding. However, we anticipate being able to offer around 6 full graduate scholarships to incoming DPhil Students in 2023-24

You will be automatically considered for the majority of Oxford scholarships, if you fulfil the eligibility criteria and submit your graduate application by 20 January 2023. Scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic achievement and potential to excel as a DPhil student. 

For further details about searching for funding as a graduate student visit the University’s dedicated Funding pages.


Candidates should hold a first University degree to at least a UK upper-second class honours degree or a MS degree in a relevant area of biology. Training should ideally include evolutionary biology or population ecology, and candidates with an interest in computational biology or population genomics will be well suited for this project.

For full entry requirements and eligibility information, please see the main admissions page.

How to apply

The deadline for applications for 2023-2024 entry is midday 20 January 2023. We will continue to accept applications submitted after 20 January 2023, but these late applications will not be considered for scholarship funding.

You can find the admissions portal and further information about eligibility and the DPhil in Biology Programme at the University's graduate admissions page.

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