PhD Research Project: NERC CENTA - The epigenetics of adaptation and evolution

United Kingdom
Nov 30, 2016
Jan 23, 2017
Organization Type
University and College
Full Time

Project Highlights:
• To investigate the significance of environmentally-induced epigenetic variations as a source of phenotypic plasticity for asexually reproducing organisms
• To determine if selection favours asexual genotypes with a high capacity for epigenetic-mediated plasticity
• To learn and use methodologies such as WGBS, RNA-seq and Chip-seq as well as to learn computational epigenetics

As natural populations face unprecedented rates of environmental change, understanding the underlying mechanism behind plasticity, adaptation and driving forces of evolution is paramount if we are to predict how and which populations and species are most likely to cope and which are most vulnerable to extinction. The key for this prediction lies partly in understanding the basis of molecular and phenotypic plasticity and epigenetic variation. The ecological importance of phenotypic plasticity, especially for asexual species, has long been recognised as a means of adaptive strategy and survival when organisms are exposed to variable environments. In asexual species epigenetic variation and plasticity is thought to drive phenotypic plasticity. Epigenetic modifications and plasticity is achieved by altering the expression of the genes in response to environmental cues without modifying the DNA sequence. Thus it is thought that selection usually favours species with high capacity for epigenetic plasticity. The environmentally-induced epigenetic variations not only can provide higher adaptive capacity throughout the lifespan of an individual but also have the potential to provide higher epigenetic plasticity in subsequent generations, providing them with a survival advantage upon encountering a similar stressor.

In this project, the epigenetics of plasticity and adaptation will be investigated in two phenotypically plastic sentinel species, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and Daphnia magna. During this project the student will set out to: 1) generate and select Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and Daphnia magna strains tolerant to several environmentally relevant stressors, 2) To identify epi-alleles associated with phenotypic plasticity and adaptation, 3) To investigate the potential of inheritance of epigenetically-acquired plasticity in non-exposed subsequent generations. Overall, this project will result in achieving a better understanding of how species evolve in response to fluctuations in their natural habitats.

Funding Notes

In addition to completing an online application form, you will also need to complete and submit the CENTA studentship application form available from

CENTA studentships are for 3.5 years and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). In addition to the full payment of their tuition fees, successful candidates will receive the following financial support.

Annual stipend, set at £14,296 for 2016/17
Research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000

CENTA students are required to undertake from 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement.


1. Harries et al., (2012) Daphnia as an emerging epigenetic model organism. Genetics Research International. 12: 1-8.
2. Colbourne et al., (2011) The ecoresponsive genome of Daphnia pulex. Science. 331: 555-561.
3. Miner et al., (2012) Linking genes to communities and ecosystems: Daphnia as an ecogenomic model. Proceedings of the Royal Society. 279: 1873-1882.
4. Mirbahai and Chipman (2014) Epigenetic memory of environmental organisms: a reflection of lifetime stressor exposure. Mut Res. 764-765: 10-17.
5. Schlichting and Wund (2013) Phenotypic plasticity and epigenetic marking: an assessment of evidence for genetic accommodation. Evolution. 68: 656-672.
6. Verhoeven and Preite (2013) Epigenetic variation in asexually reproducing organisms. 68-3: 644-655