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Plant and crop fertility: the evolution and impact of gene control networks

Department of Genetics and Genome Biology

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Prof D Twell No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This research project aims to uncover the genetic control of plant gamete development and the evolution of gene networks that determine plant and crop fertility.

Plant fertility is vitally dependent upon sexual reproduction and the differentiation of the male (sperm) and female (egg) gametes. Despite the importance of this process for future food security we have limited knowledge of the underlying mechanisms.

Our research has identified a key regulatory step in plant sperm cell development that involves the Arabidopsis thaliana transcription factor DUO1. This protein is widely conserved in important food crops such as maize, wheat, rice and tomato and forms a regulatory module with its target protein DAZ1 (a zinc finger transcription factor) (Borg et al., 2014).

An exciting recent discovery is that this module is ancient and is even needed for sperm development in early land plants, such as mosses and liverworts (Higo et al., 2018).
Project aims & description
This project will explore the conservation and mechanisms by which the DUO1-DAZ1 module coordinates cell proliferation with sperm differentiation. Studies of gene function will involve those in crop species including tomato, as well as in early land plant models. Genetic and molecular analyses will be combined with comparative transcriptome studies to uncover co-expression and co-function gene networks. This will help to uncover novel plant fertility genes of potential value. Overall, the project seeks to establish how gene function and evolution has shaped the fertility of some of our important food crops, starting from their earliest origins.

From an applied perspective, the research is also expected to deliver novel information and tools of value in plant breeding applications such as hybrid seed production and the control of gene flow.
Possible timeline
Year 1. Construct novel germline mutants using CRISPR-Cas9 technology and identify germline targets of the DUO1-DAZ1 module based on bioinformatic analysis of transcriptome data.

Year 2. Use genetic and molecular methods to analyse germline mutants and establish in vitro/in vivo DNA binding assays for DAZ1.

Year 3. Devise a network model for the contribution of DAZ1-targets to male germline development and analyse gene function by gene-editing and manipulation of protein function.
Entry requirements:
• Those who have a 1st or a 2.1 undergraduate degree in a relevant field are eligible.
• Evidence of quantitative training is required. For example, AS or A level Maths, IB Standard or Higher Maths, or university level maths/statistics course.
• Those who have a 2.2 and an additional Masters degree in a relevant field may be eligible.
• Those who have a 2.2 and at least three years post-graduate experience in a relevant field may be eligible.
• Those with degrees abroad (perhaps as well as postgraduate experience) may be eligible if their qualifications are deemed equivalent to any of the above
• University English language requirements apply.

For further information please contact [Email Address Removed]
Application advice:
To apply please refer the application instructions at

You will need to apply for the PhD place and also submit your online application notification to MIBTP. Links for both are on the above web page.

Project / Funding Enquiries: For further information please contact [Email Address Removed]

Application enquiries to [Email Address Removed]

Funding Notes

All MIBTP students will be provided with a 4 years studentship.
Tuition Fees at UK fee rates
- a tax free stipend of at least £15,295 p.a (to rise in line with UKRI recommendation)
- a travel allowance in year 1
- a travel / conference budget
- a generous consumables budget
- use of a laptop for the duration of the programme


Borg, M., et al. (2011) The R2R3 MYB transcription factor DUO1 activates a male germline-specific regulon essential for sperm cell differentiation in Arabidopsis. Plant Cell 23:1-16.

Borg, M., et al. (2014). An EAR-dependent regulatory module promotes male germ cell division and sperm fertility in Arabidopsis. Plant Cell 26:1-17.

Brownfield, L., et al. (2009) A plant germ cell-specific integrator of cell cycle progression and sperm specification PLoS Genetics 5: e1000430.

Berger, F. and Twell, D. (2011) Germline specification and function in plants. Annual Review of Plant Biology 62:461-484.

Higo et al., (2018) Transcription factor DUO1 generated by neo-functionalization is associated with evolution of sperm differentiation in plants. Nature Communications 9, 5283.

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