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When does genetic diversity matter? The conservation of genetic biodiversity in a changing world.

   Institute of Integrative Biology

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  Dr R Whitlock, Dr J Hodgson  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Genetic diversity is a fundamental component of biological diversity that underpins the ability of populations to adapt, through evolution, to environmental change. In small and isolated populations, the loss of the genetic variation via inbreeding can also lead to the expression of health defects known as inbreeding depression, threatening population persistence. Thus, the conservation of genetic diversity may be critical in ensuring that populations of threatened species remain sustainable and can adapt to future environmental change. Anthropogenic climate change and habitat fragmentation represent two of the most challenging problems faced by species conservation, globally. However, little is known regarding how they will interact to influence either the spatial distribution of genetic biodiversity, or a population’s genetic sustainability or evolutionary potential.

In this project, we will carry out meta-analyses to synthesise the existing conservation genetics evidence base, to understand how climate change influences genetic biodiversity and population sustainability. We envisage three linked meta-analyses, which will provide a comprehensive understanding of the consequences of climate-induced genetic changes, informing conservation practice. First we will review the retention of genetic variation within species’ geographical ranges during climate shifts, informing on how climate will erode a species’ total genetic biodiversity. Second, we will determine how variation in the climate or linked abiotic conditions influences the severity of, or the phenotypic response to inbreeding. This will reveal whether climate change is likely to compound the effects of inbreeding depression in small and isolated populations. Finally, we will review the capacity for “evolutionary rescue” within natural populations.

We will assess what types of species are best able to adapt to changing conditions through evolutionary responses, and under what conditions. Our goal is to package and summarize the findings of these reviews for conservation practitioners using stakeholder meetings and web resources, to create an impact on species’ conservation.

This project will provide a broad training in conservation genetics, evolutionary biology and climate change impacts on biodiversity. To support development of the meta-analyses, training will be provided in review techniques, literature evaluation, evidence synthesis and meta-analysis. The project will also involve an element of outreach and interaction with stakeholders involved in conservation, via stakeholder meetings, web copy and information leaflets aimed at a lay audience. Thus, the project will also provide knowledge of, and training in science communication, and the translation of science into conservation practice and policy.

Funding Notes

The Institute of Integrative Biology offers competitive IIB International Scholarships. These cover tuition and research fees and a one-off sum of £1000 will be provided on commencement of studies but students must provide all their living costs for the duration of their studies.

Applicants must be able to commence studies 1 October 2017.

All applications must be made before 26 May 2017 using the University of Liverpool on-line system at for Full Time PhD Biological Sciences for term 2017-18.
Interviews will be held during June with applicants notified of the outcome by 30 June 2017.


Ravenscroft, C.H., Whitlock, R., Fridley, J.D., 2015. Rapid genetic divergence in response to 15 years of simulated climate change. Global Change Biol. 21, 4165–4176.

Neaves, L.E., Whitlock, R., Piertney, S.B., Burke, T., Butlin, R.K., Hollingsworth, P.M., 2015. 15. Implications of climate change for genetic diversity and evolvability in the UK, In Terrestrial biodiversity climate change impacts report card technical paper.

Whitlock, R., Hipperson, H., Thompson, D.B.A., Butlin, R.K., Burke, T., 2016. Consequences of in-situ strategies for the conservation of plant genetic diversity. Biol. Conserv. 203, 134–142.

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