Comparative phylogenetics of the leaf economics spectrum

(FERGUSON_E24ARIES) CASE studentship with The Beth Chatto Gardens

Comparative phylogenetics of the leaf economics spectrum

(FERGUSON_E24ARIES) CASE studentship with The Beth Chatto Gardens

Project Description


Dr John Ferguson, University of Essex – Contact me

Professor Tracy Lawson, University of Essex, School of Life Sciences

Dr Amanda Cavanagh, University of Essex, School of Life Sciences

Dr Katharina Huber, University of East Anglia, School of Computing Science

Professor Zoran Nikoloski, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology

Scientific background

The leaf economics spectrum (LES) describes plant growth strategies across a gradient from conservative-to-acquisitive growth and resource use. It comprises structural and chemical traits as well as traits relating to carbon metabolism. It is unclear how global LES variation is coordinated with evolutionary relationships. This project addresses this knowledge gap by comparing DNA-based and LES-based phylogenetic relationships across a diverse collection of plant species, forming a foundation for understanding how clades of species will respond to climate change.

Research methodology

The student will perform a comparative analysis of sequence-based and LES-based phylogenetic relationships. During the summer, they will characterise globally diverse flora within the world-famous Beth Chatto’s Gardens, where the visionary principle of growing the right plant in the right place was established. Here, DNA samples will be collected, and the LES will be characterised using cutting-edge techniques (e.g., hyperspectral reflectance, infra-red gas exchange). A field-lab design will promote interactions with garden visitors allowing the student to develop public engagement skills. The student will relocate to Essex to process collected samples (e.g., sequencing, mass spectrometry) and undertake computational analyses. Through this approach the following objectives will be addressed:

–           Determine the extent to which the LES is linked to evolutionary relationships.
–           Forecast which clades are at risk to climate change based on how the LES defines environmental interactions.
–           Develop machine learning approaches to predict taxonomic assignments and climate change responses using hyperspectral reflectance.


This studentship offers a unique opportunity to pair the world-leading facilities of the Essex Plant Innovation Centre with the diversity housed at Beth Chatto’s Gardens. The student will acquire skills to equip them for a career in a variety of disciplines, e.g., physiology, computational biology, evolution, and science communication. Specifically, the student will develop experience in photo-physiological phenotyping, molecular biology, biochemistry, and computational biology (e.g., machine learning, phylogenetics). They will also be encouraged to present at conferences to enhance their profile.

Person specification

The ideal candidate will have at least an upper-second class degree in a subject aligned to this project (e.g., Plant Biology, Evolutionary Biology). Experience in the following is desirable: physiology, molecular biology, fieldwork, computational biology.


  • 1 Burnett, A.C., Anderson, J., Davidson K.J., Ely, K.S., Lamour, J., Li, Q., Morrison, B.D., Yang, D., Rogers, A., Serbin, S.P. (2021) A best-practice guide to predicting plant traits from leaf-level hyperspectral data using partial least squares regression, Journal of Experimental Botany, 72(18), 6175–6189, 10.1093/jxb/erab295
  • 2 Popescu A., Huber, K.T., & Paradis, E. (2021) ape 3.0: New tools for distance-based phylogenetics and evolutionary analysis in R. Bioinformatics, 28(10), 1536-1537, 10.1093/bioinformatics/bts184Popescu A., Huber, K.T., & Paradis, E. (2021) ape 3.0: New tools for distance-based phylogenetics and evolutionary analysis in R. Bioinformatics, 28(10), 1536-1537, 10.1093/bioinformatics/bts184
  • 3 Ferguson, J.N., Jithesh, T., Lawson, T., Kromdijk J. (2023) Leaf excision introduces limited and species-specific effects on photosynthetic parameters across crop functional types, Journal of Experimental Botany, erad319. 10.1093/jxb/erad319
  • 4 Li, S., Moller, C. A., Mitchell, N. G., Martin, D. G., Sacks, E. J., Saikia, S., Labonte, N.R., Baldwin, B.S., Morrison, J.I., Ferguson, J.N., Leakey, A.D.B., Ainsworth, E.A. (2022) The leaf economics spectrum of triploid and tetraploid C4 grass Miscanthus x giganteus. Plant, Cell & Environment, 45, 3462–3475, 10.1111/pce.14433
  • 5 Reich, P.B. (2014), The world-wide ‘fast–slow’ plant economics spectrum: a traits manifesto. Journal of Ecology, 102, 275-301, 10.1111/1365-2745.12211

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2024. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 10th January 2024.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£18,622 p.a. for 2023/24) and research funding. International applicants are eligible for fully-funded ARIES studentships including fees. Please note however that ARIES funding does not cover additional costs associated with relocation to, and living in, the UK. We expect to award between 4 and 6 studentships to international candidates in 2024.
  • ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and ARIES provides £2,500 to every student for access to external training, travel and conferences, on top of all Research Costs associated with the project. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses.
  • ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion in all areas of its operation. We encourage enquiries and applications from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation and transgender status. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience, and our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience.
  • All ARIES studentships may be undertaken on a part-time or full-time basis, visa requirements notwithstanding.
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor. To apply for this Studentship follow the instructions at the bottom of the page or click the 'apply now' link.
  • ARIES is required by our funders to collect Equality and Diversity Information from all of our applicants. The information you provide will be used solely for monitoring and statistical purposes; it will remain confidential, and will be stored on the UEA sharepoint server. Data will not be shared with those involved in making decisions on the award of Studentships, and will have no influence on the success of your application. It will only be shared outside of this group in an anonymised and aggregated form. You will be ask to complete the form by the University to which you apply.
  • ARIES funding is subject to UKRI terms and conditions. Postgraduate Researchers are expected to live within reasonable distance of their host organisation for the duration of their studentship. See for more information

Applications Open

To apply please email a CV and cover letter to