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The evolution of recombination rate variation in a natural population of house sparrows.

  • Full or part time
    Dr S Johnston
    Dr J Hadfield
  • Application Deadline
    Thursday, December 13, 2018
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Meiotic recombination (or crossing-over) is advantageous from an evolutionary perspective, as it rearranges existing allelic variation to create new haplotypes in which beneficial alleles are unpaired from harmful alleles. Consequently, beneficial alleles are more likely to spread through populations whilst harmful alleles are lost, meaning that populations with higher crossing-over can respond to selection at a faster rate. Nevertheless, crossing-over may also have a cost: it can create new harmful mutations, and it may break apart beneficial combinations of alleles previously build up by selection. These relative costs and benefits of high and low recombination may vary within and between populations, and if crossover rate itself is heritable, then it may be subject to selection and have the potential to evolve. Therefore, understanding the genetic causes of variation in crossover rate and positioning is important for understanding the potential of a population to respond to selection and more generally, for interpreting and predicting evolutionary phenomena. This project will use genomic data from a long term ecological study of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) to investigate fine-scale variation in recombination and to determine the genetic architecture and selection on individual recombination rates in a wild system.

Study system: The pedigreed population of house sparrows in Northern Norway has been intensively studied on an individual basis since 1993. Genome-wide SNP data for 200K SNPs is currently available for ~4000 individuals, along with the recently assembled and annotated house sparrow genome. This data is provided in collaboration with Prof Henrik Jensen and Prof Bernt-Erik Sæther at NTNU, Trondheim, Norway.

Key research objectives:
1. Integrate pedigree and SNP information to infer individual recombination rates within the house sparrow population.
2. Determine the heritability of individual recombination rates using quantitative genetic approaches.
3. Conduct genome-wide association studies to identify cis- and trans-acting genomic variants associated with recombination rate variation.
4. Examine association between recombination rates, its genetic architecture and individual fitness-related traits.

Research Training: The project will be mostly computational and will suit students with strong analytical potential. The supervisors will provide cutting-edge training in quantitative genetics, evolutionary genomics and statistics (see below). The first year will include an intensive one-semester course on population genetics, quantitative genetics and statistics at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology which will provide a basis for the analytical work. Further training will be provided Edinburgh Genomics coding and bioinformatics courses. The student will also be able to take advantage of national and international collaborative links of the supervisors and of the house sparrow project community.

Fieldwork: The student will be encouraged to contribute to fieldwork to collect DNA and aid the field team to learn about the ecology of the system.

Lab work: The student will be expected to carry out lab work to prepare DNA for sequencing and genotyping. Experience in molecular ecology lab techniques is desirable but not necessary as training will be provided.

The lead supervisor, Susan Johnston (, has extensive experience in quantitative and evolutionary genomics in wild systems, and has developed methods to quantify individual rates of recombination from complex pedigrees. Co-supervisor Jarrod Hadfield has extensive experience the study of inheritance, selection and evolution of complex traits using theory, statistical inference and experimentation in order to address questions regarding the form of natural selection and the nature of heritable variation.

Funding Notes

The “Apply online” button on this page will take you to our Online Application checklist. Please complete each step and download the checklist which will provide a list of funding options and guide you through the application process.

If you would like us to consider you for one of our scholarships you must apply by 12 noon on 13 December 2018 at the latest.


Johnston SE, C Bérénos, J Slate, JM Pemberton (2016) Conserved genetic architecture underlying individual recombination rate variation in a wild population of Soay sheep. Genetics, 203, 583–598

Elgvin, T. O., et al (2017). The genomic mosaicism of hybrid speciation. Science Advances, 3, e1602996.

How good is research at University of Edinburgh in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 109.70

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

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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