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The genomic basis of chiral variation and speciation in mirror-image snails

Project Description

While our bodies are bilaterally symmetric on the outside, the internal organs exhibit consistent, directional asymmetries in their position or anatomy, such that left/right positional errors are an important class of human birth defect, and in later life, numerous diseases affect seemingly symmetric organs in a lateralised fashion. However, while invariant left/right asymmetry appears to be the rule in nearly all animals, until recently it has not been clear if the path to asymmetry is conserved, or how/why the left/right axis is consistently set up in the same direction (e.g. heart to the left). In recent BBSRC funded research (Current Biology 26: 654-660), we identified the one in a billion base pair change in a formin gene that determines mirror image development (“chirality”) in the pond snail, finally identifying the first described locus that reverses the whole body structure of an animal. As we also showed that the same gene is similarly involved in setting up asymmetry in the frog, then our work that began in snails ultimately revealed one of the earliest common symmetry-breaking steps across the whole of the Bilateria.

A key problem with respect to understanding natural chiral variation is that the pond snail is one of the few snail species in which the causative mutation is pathological - only about a half of the offspring survive. In other species of snail, such as Japanese Euhadra, we have shown that formin is not involved in determining variation in chirality, but we have no idea what the genes are, nor the (almost) inconceivable means by which they are able to cause a switch in chirality without associated pathology. It is the ambitious aim of this project to identify the chirality locus in Euhadra, and to understand how it contributes to possible speciation. The project will most likely involve a range of techniques, from fieldwork in Japan/Hawaii to genomics and bioinformatics – with the balance determined by the interests of the student.

Training rotations for this project will allow students to learn skills directly relevant to the project, with substantial components of wet lab molecular genetics, physiology and bioinformatics.

The University of Nottingham is one of the world’s most respected research-intensive universities, ranked 8th in the UK for research power (REF 2014). Students studying in the School of Life Sciences will have the opportunity to thrive in a vibrant, multidisciplinary environment, with expert supervision from leaders in their field, state-of-the-art facilities and strong links with industry. Students are closely monitored in terms of their personal and professional progression throughout their study period and are assigned academic mentors in addition to their supervisory team. The School provides structured training as a fundamental part of postgraduate personal development and our training programme enables students to develop skills across the four domains of the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF). During their studies, students will also have the opportunity to attend and present at conferences around the world. The School puts strong emphasis on the promotion of postgraduate research with a 2-day annual PhD research symposium attended by all students, plus academic staff and invited speakers.

Funding Notes

Funding available to UK and EU students. Apply here: View Website.
Applicants should have, or expect to get, a First Class or Upper Second degree or equivalent in a relevant subject. Further experience, including a Masters degree, is likely to be advantageous.

Home applicants should contact the supervisor to determine the current funding status for this project. EU applicants should visit the Graduate School webpages View Website for information on specific EU scholarships. International applicants should visit our International Research Scholarships page View Website for information regarding fees and funding at the University.


Davison A, McDowell GS, Holden JM, et al. (2016) Formin is associated with left-right asymmetry in the pond snail and the frog. Current Biology, 26, 654-660.

Richards PM, Morii Y, Kimura K, Hirano T, Chiba S, and Davison A (2017). Single-gene speciation: mating and gene flow between mirror-image snails. Evolution Letters,

Richards PM, Liu MM, Lowe N, et al. (2013) RAD-Seq derived markers flank the shell colour and banding loci of the Cepaea nemoralis supergene. Molecular Ecology, 22, 3077-3089.

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

FTE Category A staff submitted: 90.86

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

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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