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The impact of somatic DNA variation on tree adaptation and evolution

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, February 10, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

In virtually all living organisms, mutations of genomic DNA allow the generation of new traits that, if positively selected, drive adaptation to changing environments and contribute to evolution. In most multicellular organisms, these DNA mutations are propagated only if passed to next generations by creating a mutated progeny. In addition, intra-organism DNA changes also occur and are known as somatic mutations. However, in most cases, somatic mutations are not biologically relevant, as they do not proliferate in adult cells. An important exception to this principle occurs in trees: although all tree adult tissues derive from a single egg cell, different tree branches contain cells that separated and proliferated independently for long time, spanning several tens, or even hundreds of years. Therefore, somatic DNA mutations can be propagated clonally in the cell lineage of a new branch, affecting vast tree areas and producing visible phenotypes. This phenomenon is well documented in artificially mutagenized herbaceous plants and clonally propagated fruit trees, and was recently observed occurring in natural forest trees. However, its relevance as a natural mechanism of tree evolution remains deeply unknown. To fill this gap, this project will search for genomic variants generated in different braches of forest trees, dating and mapping them onto the tree’s branching architecture. Then, we will characterize the impact of DNA mutations on gene expression, and their relevance on genome adaptation to environmental changes and stress. Moreover, for each analysed tree, we will estimate the DNA mutation rate and we will investigate possible correlation of DNA mutations with past documented environmental changes and stress.
The selected student will apply ground-breaking newly established methods for efficient detection of genomic variations, constituted by Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), indels, genome rearrangements and transposable element (TE) mobilizations. Interesting variants identified will be validated with standard molecular biology techniques, and their relation to environmental stresses will be evaluated, including disease pressure, high temperature, drought and increased atmospheric CO2 concentration. With this project, we will be able to estimate tree genome plasticity operating in natural conditions, and predict the impact of a changing climate to genome evolution and adaptation of forest trees.

Funding Notes

The Forest Edge Doctoral Scholarships programme will offer 20 Leverhulme Doctoral Scholarships at the University of Birmingham from 2018 to 2020. It will act as a bridge between Birmingham-led CENTA2 and the ENVISION DTP, providing coherent doctoral training for forest science in the UK for the first time. Please refer to the Forest Edge website (View Website) for information about eligibility requirements and selection process. Successful applicants are expected to start their research project from October 2020.


Schmid-Siegert, E., Sarkar, N., Iseli, C., et al. (2017). Low number of fixed somatic mutations in a long-lived oak tree. Nature Plants 3, 926–929.

Hanlon, V.C.T., Otto, S.P., and Aitken, S.N. (2019). Somatic mutations substantially increase the per-generation mutation rate in the conifer Picea sitchensis. Evolution Letters 3, 348–358.

Lanfear, R. (2018). Do plants have a segregated germline? PLOS Biology 16, e2005439.

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

FTE Category A staff submitted: 42.80

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

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