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New tools for conservation: dissecting the relative contribution of genetic and epigenetic changes to adaptive evolution

Background

The current age has been named the “Earth’s sixth extinction”, as human-mediated extinction rates rival those of the five previous mass extinction events. Conservation has hence become a core field in Biology: however, most advances are from a genetic perspective.

To advance our understanding of the adaptive potential of vertebrate species and its role in conservation, I propose a ground-breaking approach to dissect the relative contribution of genetic and epigenetic changes to adaptive evolution. Although disputed, it has been suggested that adaptive potential may not solely rely on genetic variation, but also on phenotypic and epigenetic variation. Particularly, upon rapid environmental changes, phenotypes may change and play a role in rescuing endangered populations. Yet, whether such phenotypic changes reflect genetic shifts or individual plastic responses to environment change remains unknown.

Aim

To address this key question, we propose to use the three-spined stickleback as model organism. We will assemble populations with varying levels of genetic diversity and expose them to increased parasitism and temperature. Specifically, we will:

  • Identify genomic regions underpinning parasite and temperature adaptation;
  • Investigate the stability of epigenetic changes over generations as responses to selective pressures;
  • Elucidate the link between genetic diversity - propensity to epigenetic changes, and the extent of phenotypic variation;
  • Develop state-of-the-art tools for conservation programmes that incorporate a complete evolutionary response.

We will then verify and synthesize our results by screening these genes in a wide range of populations with varying levels of genetic diversity and demographic histories. The anticipated results of this proposal will significantly extend the current frontier of our knowledge regarding the adaptive potential of species and how to best protect vertebrates under conservation threat.

Eligibility

Applicant requirements are listed on the CONACYT foreign scholarship pages.

International students must provide evidence of proficient English language skills, see our entry requirements page for further information.

NB If you are interested in self-funding please contact Dr Eizaguirre by e-mail (c.eizaguirre@qmul.ac.uk) to discuss your eligibility for this project.

Application process

  1. Potential candidates should contact Dr Eizaguirre by e-mail (c.eizaguirre@qmul.ac.uk) and submit their CV and a cover letter explaining their eligibility and interest in this project.
  2. Applications to Queen Mary are accepted all year round but we encourage you to contact Dr Eizaguirre as soon as possible. If he agrees to take your application further you will be required to submit an online application.
  3. If you are successful we will give you an offer on the condition that you are given a funding award from CONACYT.
  4. When you have received a conditional offer from us, you should apply directly to CONACYT.
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