Which features of plants are adaptations to the climate? How much variation (plasticity) can a plant species show in adapting to short and medium term climate change? Are the plants we see today primarily a product of climate change over evolutionary time?
Plants are a key factor in the global climate balance, they absorb CO2 and emit oxygen, they stabilise soils and intercept rainfall, reducing erosion, they generate local microclimates and can slow the spread of deserts. However, analysis of the physical and biochemical traits of plant species in relation to climate adaptation is currently quite limited in scope. The focus of such research is generally on crops or whole ecosystems, such as grassland or forest.
This PhD will study physical, biochemical and cytological features in three distantly related plant lineages at the species-level to search for common patterns in relation to climate adaptation. The plant lineages under study occur predominantly in the Mediterranean climatic region but members of these lineages have spread beyond this climate zone. Common changes in features among these lineages will help understand the constraints on species imposed by climate. Your input into the project will be to test and evaluate as wide a range of characters as possible for the obvious or cryptic influence of climatic factors.
Over the course of two years, working alongside the experts at University of Reading and the Royal Horticultural Society, you will build up extensive datasets of features for the approximately 200 study species that will be interpreted in the light of molecular phylogenies and climate envelopes. The applicant will have the opportunity to study preserved plants in herbaria, cultivated plants, and possibly some species in the field. You will have the opportunity to interact with internationally recognised expert groups in phylogenetics at Reading and horticultural taxonomy at the RHS Wisley.
During the first year of the PhD you will develop your skills in phylogenetics and climate modelling. You will begin a survey of herbarium and living specimens to build a spreadsheet of plant characters. You will develop an initial ontology to describe the features you find.
In the second year you will have opportunity to focus on some features that show exceptional promise as adaptive elements but also aim to detect those that might be neutral in relation to climate. You will have the chance for an outreach event to communicate your findings to a broader public.
Your final year will be the opportunity to complete the data synthesis, fill any crucial data gaps and complete the thesis.
Along the way you will publish papers reporting your progress and the completion of particular aspects of the study. Key findings will contribute to the global knowledge of the adaptations of plants to their environments and their ability to expand beyond previously occupied niches.
Applicants should hold or expect to gain a minimum of a 2:1 Bachelor Degree, Masters Degree with Merit, or equivalent. The most crucial factor is an interest in plant evolution. We are looking for a computer competent student who is comfortable learning new software and analytical approaches, who has a keen eye for detail and the ability to discuss their science with peers and their supervisors.
We will also consider candidates with different academic paths but with experience acquired from a research position, or equivalent, that is relevant to the topic of the PhD project.
To apply, please follow the instructions at https://research.reading.ac.uk/scenario/apply/