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PhD in Geographical & Earth Sciences: Bleaching and the genetic mechanisms for acclimation and adaptation in coral reefs

Project Description

The ecosystem services provided by coral reefs are worth over $100 billion annually and include coast line protection, tourism, food and medical derivatives. However, the health of the constituent corals can be significantly impacted by coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is the loss of symbiotic zooxanthellae (Symbiodiniaceae) from tropical corals and can be caused by stressors such as thermal perturbations, disease and freshwater runoff. Thermal perturbations are thought to be the most significant bleaching trigger, and have been well documented in conjunction with major global bleaching events in 1998, 2002 & 2016. These mass bleaching events caused widespread coral death with catastrophic ecosystem and service provision impacts. The importance of temperature is such that bleaching can now be forecast over a few days – weeks. However, sub-lethal bleaching, where the coral bleaches but recovers, may act as a ‘safety valve’ allowing coral hosts to survive periods of thermal stress in warmer waters. This may form the basis for adaptive and acclimatory capacity to warming in corals.

Despite the devastation caused by severe coral bleaching, it is still not possible to accurately assess if corals will survive in the warmer oceans projected for the end of the century as we do not understand their ability to survive bleaching at centennial time scales through acclimatisation and adaptation processes. However, we now have historic bleaching records that extend over the last 400 centuries. While these records indicate corals may be reaching a tipping point in terms of survivability, the records also show evidence for periods of coral acclimatisation in the past.

To understand the relevance of current bleaching trajectories and the likelihood of future coral acclimation and adaptation, records of past acclimation and adaption by the coral, its symbionts and associated microbes (i.e. the coral holobiont), are needed.

This project will determine past acclimation and adaptation of the coral holobiont to environmental change. This is important as it will enable a more robust understanding of coral survival under global change.

For more details see:

All applicants need to meet NERC’s eligibility criteria to be considered for an IAPETUS studentship and these are detailed in NERC’s current studentship handbook.

IAPETUS is only able to consider applications from Home/European Union candidates. International candidates are not eligible to be considered and where an candidate from another EU country has not been resident in the UK for 3 years or more prior to the commencement of their studies with IAPETUS, they will only be eligible for a fees-only studentship.

IAPETUS is looking for candidates with the following qualities and backgrounds:

A first or 2:1 undergraduate degree, or have relevant comparable experience;
In addition, candidates may also hold or be completing a Masters degree in their area of proposed study or a related discipline; &
An outstanding academic pedigree and research potential, such as evidenced through the publication of articles, participation in academic conferences and other similar activities.

Funding Notes

IAPETUS’ postgraduate studentships are tenable for between 3 and 4 years, depending on the doctoral research project the student is studying and provides the following package of financial support:

A tax-free maintenance grant set at the UK Research Council’s national rate, which in 2019/20 is £14,999 (pending confirmation).
Full payment of their tuition fees at the Home/EU rate; &
Access to extensive research support funding.
Part-time award-holders are funded for between six (6) and eight (8) years and receive a maintenance grant at 50% of the full-time rate.

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