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What confers general stress resilience in plants: cellular screening and directed-evolution approaches

  • Full or part time
    Dr N Nakayama
  • Application Deadline
    Sunday, January 20, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Climate change threatens global food security, aggravating uncertainty in agricultural production worldwide. It is a hard challenge to solve, because the nature of climate change often is to become more erratic and unpredictable. The best possible solution might be to boost the general resilience of crop plants so that they can withstand environmental stressors of multiple types. Plants resilience can be enhanced through evolution; for example, individuals that have been exposed to juxtaposition of stressors over several generations may have acquired genetic alterations that make them generally resilient against the combination of stressors.

What are the molecular underpinnings of the general resilience enhancement? This is difficult a question to answer, since multi-trait genetic screens tend to multiply workloads, and a stress resistance screen, even for a specific abiotic stress, is costly because it requires a large space in climate-controlled growth chambers or rooms. In this PhD project, a novel, cell-based genetic screening method will be developed to recover genotypes conferring or enhancing the general resilience. This new technology is fast, low-cost, and compatible with non-model species such as agricultural crops, with a potential to catalyse climate-smart agriculture and improve global food security.

As a pilot project, the well characterized collection of over a thousand ecotypes of Arabidopsis will be screened after exposure to a single or combination of stressors (e.g. heat, drought, mechanical, biotic). The surviving ecotypes will be identified and their stress resilience will be correlated with their natural habitat history. Transcriptome analysis will be carried out to identify the signature gene clusters for the stress resistance. Furthermore, reference ecotypes will be exposed to mutagen and screened, and their transcriptome will be characterized to see if similar genes are affected in de novo experimental evolution as in natural evolution.

This project will train students in plant cell-based biotechnology, synthetic biology, experimental evolution, and bioinformatics. The host lab offers trainings in cutting-edge plant bioengineering via synthetic biology with single cell cultures. The evolutionary genomics aspects will be supervised by Dr Eunyoung Chae, Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore, who has made exciting discoveries about disease resistance via ecotype comparisons and genomic eco-physiology, and the student will spend 6 months in her lab as part of his/her PhD training.

The nominated supervisor will select a candidate who will then compete at interview, with Sainsbury Undergraduate students, for one of up to four Sainsbury PhD Studentships. Interviews will be held in London on 1st March 2019. Please note that students cannot apply to their home institution. It would be expected that the studentship holder spend six months during their 3rd or 4th year at another university/institute to gain additional experience.

Funding Notes

Enhanced four-year postgraduate studentships starting in October 2019, will once again be awarded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. The nominated supervisor will select a candidate who will then compete at interview, with Sainsbury Undergraduate students, for one of up to four Sainsbury PhD Studentships. Interviews will be held in London on 1st March 2019. It would be expected that the studentship holder spend six months during their 3rd or 4th year at another university/institute to gain additional experience. Please note that students cannot apply to their home institution.

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