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QUADRAT DTP: Environmental ancient DNA analysis of Lateglacial and Early Holocene contexts in Ireland and Scotland

Project Description

This project aims to refine our understanding of Lateglacial and Early Holocene biodiversity and ecosystems in Scotland and Ireland using ancient DNA extracted from ancient sediments (sedimentary ancient DNA, or sedaDNA). It will generate new data from up to 10 study sites (final number and specific sites decided by the student in consultation with the supervisory team) previously analysed for pollen and plant macrofossils and for which temporal sequences are already established via radiocarbon or other dating methods (e.g. ref 1 and 2). The project will focus primarily on periods of rapid climate change, such as the Bølling-Allerød (ca. 15,000-12,700 cal BP) to Younger Dryas (ca. 12,700-11,700 cal BP) transition, the Younger Dryas-Holocene transition (ca. 11,700 cal BP), and the 8.2 ka cooling event, to enhance our understanding of the impact those events had on local biota.

The results will be co-analysed with previously published palaeoenvironmental data from the selected study sites and placed in the wider environmental and climatic sequences of Ireland and Scotland, which has potential for informing response options to threats posed by rapid future climate change. Owing to the rich abundance of suitable study sites, the project will focus on lake and early wetland environments for older study sites and possibly peat bogs for Holocene contexts. The supervisory team also envisions a pilot study on sediments from one or several caves hypothesised to have been occupied by early recolonizing humans following the LGM, but for which there is currently no evidence of human occupation.

The DNA analyses carried out as part of this PhD project will provide time-stamped and high-resolution ‘snapshots’ of local flora and fauna from selected study sites; the temporal resolution of each sequence will be tailored to fit each sub-project and/or study site. Floral diversity will be assessed using chloroplast DNA-metabarcoding techniques targeting the p6 loop (10-146 base pairs) of trnL gene in the chloroplast genome (ref 3). The presence of mammals will be assessed by targeting a short stretch (60-84 base pairs) of the mitochondrial 16S gene (ref 3). We also envision that enrichment for mitochondrial human DNA will be carried out on sediments from contexts consistent with (yet unknown) early human occupation in post-Glacial Ireland. The project is likely to also seek additional funding via NERC for radiocarbon dating to refine the temporal resolution of some study sites.

The project offers comprehensive training in state-of-the-art ancient DNA methods (both wet-lab and bioinformatics), as well as fieldwork and sampling (e.g. coring), and pollen and macrofossil analyses (as a complement to aDNA analyses). Where applicable the student will also be trained in analysing tephrochronology and radiocarbon dates.


Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at Master’s level.


• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Geosciences
• State name of the lead supervisor as ‘Name of Proposed Supervisor’ on application
• State ‘QUADRAT DTP’ as Intended Source of Funding
• Select the to apply now

Funding Notes

This project is funded by the NERC QUADRAT-DTP and is available to UK/EU nationals who meet the UKRI eligibility criteria. Please visit View Website for more information.

The studentship provides funding for tuition fees, stipend and a research training and support grant subject to eligibility.


Ref 1: Jeffers, E. S., et al. 2018. Plant controls on Late Quaternary whole ecosystem structure and function. Ecology Letters 21:814-825.

Ref 2: Whittington G, Edwards KJ, Cundill PR. 1991. Late and Postglacial vegetational change at Black Loch, Fife, eastern Scotland. A multiple core approach. New Phytologist 118:147-166.

Ref 3: Giguet-Covex, C., et al. 2014. Long livestock farming history and human landscape shaping revealed by lake sediment DNA. Nature Communications, 5, 3211.

How good is research at Aberdeen University in Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 13.40

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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