There are currently two vacancies for funded PhD studentships.
Please contact Vicky (victoria.sleight [at] abdn.ac.uk) with a short email outlining your interest in the project(s) described below, please attach your CV. Vicky will then arrange to have an informal “virtual” chat with you about the project(s) and discuss the formal application process.
An evo-devo approach to understand resilience to climate change
>> The Evo-Devo Approach
Predicting how species will fare with climate change is intrinsically coupled to evolutionary and developmental processes. In order to predict adaptation potential or, ‘evolvability’, the genetic control of a trait, which is developmentally programmed, and its natural variation within and between closely related species must be understood [1,2]. By studying evolution and developmental biology together and comparing results between closely related species, the evo-devo field provides rich examples of generating such understanding. Access to new methods previously constrained to ‘model’ systems, that the evo-devo field is now pioneering in ‘non-model’ groups, holds great promise for environmental research.
>> The System
Crepidula fornicata is a marine calcifier inhabiting coastal regions vulnerable to climatic changes such as warming and ocean acidification (OA). Recent OA experiments have shown C. fornicata are surprisingly resilient to severely acidified conditions . These findings, in combination with the history of embryological study in this species, makes it an ideal system to probe questions of resilience and adaptation to climate change.
>> The Question
This studentship will take the powerful evo-devo approach and apply it to questions of major environmental significance. You will compare shell development in C. fornicata to three closely related species within the genus Crepidula to address the following question:
What developmental mechanisms regulate the shell traits (e.g. strength, microstructures and thickness) that give C. fornicata superior resilience to ocean acidification compared to its most closely related relatives?
>> The Places
You will be based in the Sleight Lab at the University of Aberdeen, a supportive and dynamic environment where curiosity is encouraged and nurtured. In the Sleight Lab you will be part of a passionate team working with world-leading experts whilst having the mountains and ocean on your doorstep. You will spend time working with your supervisors at both Queens University Belfast and the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling. You will have the opportunity to conduct field work in Woods Hole, USA and Portaferry, Northern Ireland. You will be encouraged and supported to apply for international summer schools for advanced training (such as the world-famous Embryology Course at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole), and attend international conferences to present your research.
>> The Training and Opportunities
Prior experience is not required and you will receive rigorous training in bioinformatics, histology, molecular biology and advanced imaging. You will publish your findings in leading research journals and graduate with a track-record apt for a career in academia, industry or wider fields.
[1.] Campbell et al. (2017) Conservation evo-devo: preserving biodiversity by understanding its origins. Trends Ecol Evol.
[2.] Simpson. (2002) Evolution of development in closely related species of flies and worms. Nat Rev Genet.
[3.] Kriefall et al. (2018) Resilience of Crepidula fornicata larvae in the face of severe coastal acidification. Front Mar Sci.
How do molluscs build their shells? Deciphering calcium transport mechanisms in shellfish biomineralisation using genome-editing
Marine invertebrates have answered the most fundamental questions in biology. Jellyfish provided the first fluorescent protein, the giant axons of squid taught us nerve signalling is electrical and sea urchins untangled gene regulatory networks controlling early animal development. Biological research benefits from diversity however, current major models include just three species: fly, mouse and zebrafish.
This project seeks to develop CRISPR-Cas9 mediated genome-editing protocols in a novel shellfish model to answer a fundamental question on calcium transport in biomineralisation.
Recent studies have successfully demonstrated CRISPR-Cas9 mediated genome-editing in three mollusc species [1-3]. Using these protocols as a starting-point, you will target candidate calcium transport genes for systematic knock-out in order to resolve a controversial debate in shellfish biomineral production: is calcium transported to the shell through cells (transcellular) or, in-between cells (paracellular)?
This studentship is targeted at a method development skillset that is highly desirable in industry and academia alike. The tool you will develop – CRISPR-Cas9 mediated genome-editing in shellfish – is desirable to aquaculture and biotechnology as it will facilitate the production of genetically modified (GM) animals with enhanced desirable traits (faster more efficient growth, disease resistance, stronger shells). In the USA AquaBounty’s human consumption approved transgenic salmon can reach market size in 16 months (versus 3 years for wild-type). The production of GM salmon was facilitated by a wealth of research and technologies from non-aquaculture model species (zebrafish) and, to bring this technology to aquaculture shellfish species, a genetically-enabled model system must be developed for molluscs.
The research question you will tackle focusses on calcium transport. Using CRISPR-Cas9 you will systematically disrupt transcellular and paracellular calcium transport in addition to available calcium in the growth medium to test the origin and transport mechanism used in molluscan calcification. You will resolve weather calcium is transported to the shell through cells (transcellular), in-between cells (paracellular) or, if there is not active organismal transport of calcium, and instead calcium is available in high enough concentrations in seawater to precipitate passively.
Owing to the relevance to aquaculture and biotechnology (via the tool development), as well as wider fields such as invasive species remediation (Crepidula fornicata is invasive and damaging in the UK, CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to develop gene-drive remediation technology) there is scope to direct your research to more applied avenues. In order to aid exploration into the wider applications of your tools and knowledge, you will work with an industrial CASE partner – Mikota Ltd.
You will join the Sleight Lab at the University of Aberdeen, a supportive environment where curiosity is encouraged and nurtured. You will receive rigorous training in bioinformatics, molecular biology, animal culture and embryology (including microinjection). In addition, you will be supported to apply for international summer schools for advanced training (such as the world-famous Embryology Course at the Marine Biology Laboratory USA), and attend international conferences to present your research. You will publish your findings in leading research journals and graduate with a track-record apt for a career in academia, industry or wider fields.
[1.] Perry KJ & Henry JQ, (2015). CRISPR/Cas9‐mediated genome modification in the mollusc, Crepidula fornicata. Genesis. 53(2), 237-244.
[2.] Crawford K, et al. (2020). Highly efficient knockout of a squid pigmentation gene. Current Biology. 30(17), 3484-3490.
[3.] Abe M & Kuroda R, (2019). The development of CRISPR for a mollusc establishes the formin Lsdia1 as the long-sought gene for snail dextral/sinistral coiling. Development. 146(9).