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
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.
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.
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.