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SWBio DTP PhD project: Constrained evolution – possibilities and impediments in pigment patterning

   Department of Biology & Biochemistry

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  Prof Robert Kelsh  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP). The DTP offers an interdisciplinary research training programme delivered by a consortium comprising the Universities of Bath, Bristol and Exeter, Cardiff University and Rothamsted Research, alongside six regional associate partners: Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Swansea University, UCB Pharma, University of the West of England and SETsquared Bristol. The partnership has a strong track record in advancing knowledge through high quality research and teaching, in collaboration with industry and government. For more information about the DTP, see

Studentships are available for entry in September/October 2020.

All SWBio DTP projects will follow a structured 4-year PhD model, combining traditional project-focussed studies with a taught first year which includes directed rotation projects.

Overview of this PhD project:

Lead supervisor:
Prof Robert Kelsh, Department of Biology & Biochemistry (University of Bath)
Dr Kit Yates, Department of Mathematical Sciences (University of Bath)
Prof Phil Donoghue, School of Earth Sciences (University of Bristol)
Prof Matthew Wills, Milner Centre for Evolution (University of Bath)

Evolution is popularly believed to be a gradual process typified by slow morphological change. In fact, the rate of change is highly variable, and can be very fast. How are such rapid changes in morphology achieved?

Pigment patterns are biologically vital for both camouflage and sexual signalling yet can differ markedly between sister species (those species pairs with the most recent divergences). There is a long tradition of both in silico and in vivo investigation of the underlying mechanisms. Pigment pattern formation is thus an excellent system for exploring the mechanisms and constraints underlying evolutionary novelties.

We have developed a detailed in silico representation of pigment stripe formation in the vertebrate developmental model, zebrafish (Danio rerio). Our computer model successfully simulates the patterns seen in wild-type fish (stripes), but also patterns seen in the lab in mutant zebrafish (thinner/thicker stripes and a diversity of spot patterns). Other species of Danio show a rich variety of other pigment patterns, and we propose the hypothesis that these have all evolved by modifying an otherwise conserved pattern formation process. Comprehensive exploration of our in silico model to simulate such changes will allow comparison of the model’s outputs to the patterns seen in real fish. To explore such a large region of parameter space we will develop robust metrics to allow automated comparison of real pigment patterns as measured from fish to those produced in the model. Thus, we will identify the likely cellular bases for pattern diversification. Where the model outputs generate a pattern akin to that of a natural species, the underlying parameter values will indicate which biological aspects of the pattern formation process might be altered in that species. Conversely, where an extant species’ pattern fails to be replicated within the model’s morphospace, that will indicate where extra evolutionary novelty may be being utilised. In both these ways, this project will make important contributions to the understanding of a central problem in pattern formation and its evolution.

Candidate requirements:

Applicants must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology. A master’s level qualification would also be advantageous. Moreover, applicants should be excited by the prospect of joining an interdisciplinary team to use a mathematical modelling approach to explore a fundamental question in evolutionary biology.

How to apply:

Applications should be submitted on the University of Bath’s online application form for a PhD in Biosciences:

Please ensure that you quote the supervisor’s name and project title in the ‘Your research interests’ section. You may apply for more than one project if you wish but you should submit a separate personal statement relevant to each one.

Information enquiries should be directed to Prof Robert Kelsh, [Email Address Removed].

More information about applying for a PhD at Bath may be found on our website:

Funding Notes

Studentships provide funding for a stipend at the standard UKRI rate (currently £15,009 per annum, 2019/20 rate), research and training costs and UK/EU tuition fees for 4 years.

UK and EU applicants who have been residing in the UK since September 2017 will be eligible for a full award; a limited number of studentships may be available to EU applicants who do not meet the residency requirement. Applicants who are classed as Overseas for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.