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QUADRAT DTP: Functional ‘omics for assessing resilience to environmental stress in the intertidal beadlet anemone Actinia equina

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr Marius Wenzel, Dr S Helyar, Prof Stuart Piertney, Dr C Wilding  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Understanding how marine organisms respond to acute environmental stressors such as pollution and chronic stressors such as climate change is essential for managing and conserving coastal marine ecosystems. A major knowledge gap is the extent to which individuals vary in responding to stress, what mechanisms underly these differences and how this variation then affects resilience at a population-, species- and ecosystem level. 

Functional genomics tools provide a wealth of opportunity for identifying and monitoring short-term and long-term molecular responses to stress in the form of changes in gene expression, RNA splicing or epigenetic information such as DNA methylation. This information offers novel and innovative approaches for monitoring and predicting physiological and evolutionary responses to stress, that can then be used in conservation and management to understand population vulnerability or resilience to environmental change.  

This project will use the common intertidal beadlet anemone Actinia equina as a powerful model system for examining these issues. In this species, environmental stressors such as temperature and oil pollution disrupt feeding, reproduction and social behaviour, leading to population perturbation and knock-on effects on intertidal communities. Intriguingly, these responses vary distinctly between two colour morphs that differ markedly in ecology and physiology and have been proposed to be, in fact, separate species [1-3]. However, we do not know the functional genomic basis of this physio-ecological divergence and how this may affect capacity for resilience to enduring environmental stress.  

In this project you will combine extensive fieldwork along Scottish and Irish coasts with controlled microcosm experiments in the lab and state-of-the-art molecular tools to identify functional genomic differences between Actinia equina morphs. You will address questions such as: 

  1. What genes change expression, splicing or methylation in response to environmental stress? 
  2. What are the differences in these molecular responses between the colour morphs? 
  3. How is genetic diversity at important stress-response genes structured in populations and between colour morphs? 
  4. Do genome-wide patterns of divergence between colour morphs suggest additional cryptic species divergence? 

You will gain comprehensive training in a range of functional ‘omics technologies including the very latest DNA/RNA sequencing approaches, coupled with extensive training in bioinformatics and biostatistics analyses. The QUADRAT DTP further provides an extensive training programme for developing transferable professional skills. You will be part of vibrant postgraduate communities at the University of Aberdeen and Queen’s University Belfast. Both institutions provide extensive state-of-the-art research facilities for molecular work, experimental work in microcosms, and high-performance bioinformatics computing.  

The project provides an exciting opportunity to address a fundamental issue in marine evolutionary biology using cutting-edge genomics approaches and will also contribute to a much broader understanding of the evolutionary resilience that will allow organisms to persist and adapt in the face of environmental change. You should have strong interest and ambition in evolutionary biology, genomics and bioinformatics. Previous experience in working with genomics data is desirable but not essential because full training will be provided. You will have the opportunity to develop the project in directions to suit your interests. 

Candidate Background: The successful candidate should have a background in evolution, genetics and marine ecology. Experience in molecular lab techniques (DNA/RNA extraction, PCR) and statistical data analysis (R) or similar is essential. A clean driving license is also required for fieldwork. The following experience is desirable, but not essential; fieldwork, handling large high-throughput sequencing datasets and experience in Linux-based bioinformatics computing.

More project details are available here:

How to apply: 

Funding Notes

QUADRAT studentships are open to UK and overseas candidates. Funding covers:
• A monthly stipend for accommodation and living costs, based on UKRI rates (currently £17,668 pa for 2022/23, updated annually)
• Fees (home rate tuition fees and/or fee waiver for overseas fees, where applicable)
• Research and training costs
For further information before applying please check full funding and eligibility information:


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