Self-funded PhD opportunities

Pollination precision, phenotypic specialisation and species diversification in triggerplants: A critical evaluation of the Grant-Stebbins model of plant diversification

  • Application end date: All year round
  • Funding Availability: Self-funded PhD students only
  • Department: School of Biological Sciences
  • PhD Supervisor: Scott Armbruster

Understanding how biological diversity is generated and maintained by natural processes is a major research priority in evolutionary biology, both because of its fundamental importance in explaining the history of life and because of its relevance to mitigating ongoing loss of biodiversity. However, we still lack a basic understanding of the roles of various possible processes that link evolutionary success (species persistence and diversity) with specific traits or trait combinations. A central question in plant-diversity research concerns the role of specialized flowers and pollinators in diversification. However, there remains considerable uncertainty about the ecological and evolutionary processes involved.

A number of relationships between floral specialization and evolutionary trends have been identified in earlier studies, such as the broadly recognised association between specialisation and species diversity. Indeed, the generally accepted Grant-Stebbins model of plant diversification proposes that specialized pollination increases plant diversity by increasing speciation rates. However, support for this mechanism is limited, and other mechanisms creating the association exist, including specialization reducing extinction rates and specialization being a result of selection generated by competition with related plant species in the local environment.

The goal of the research described here is to use members of the large triggerplant genus (Stylidium, containing some 300+ species) in the SW Australian biodiversity hotspot to assess possible mechanisms involved in creating the well documented correlation between species diversity and specialised systems of pollination. Triggerplants are an iconic group of plants both because of their high local and regional diversity and because of their phenotypically specialised, fast-moving flowers. Nearly half the genus has been sequenced at informative loci, and preliminary fieldwork and analyses have been conducted. The system is thus ideal for the involvement of a talented PhD student.

The student will contribute to expanding the phylogenetic data currently available for the group, most likely using a high-throughput sequencing approach (e.g. Hyb-Seq, which combines genome skimming and targeted enrichment). She/he will use phylogenetic tree reconstruction techniques and comparative analysis tools to examine the evolution of various morphological and ecological features in Stylidium and their links to shifts in diversification rates and biogeographical patterns. Should funding become available, there will be possibilities of investigating the development of different floral morphologies present in this group, in particular the different trigger mechanisms involved in pollination, using a developmental transcriptomics approach. The student will also perform flower-colour analyses, using reflectance spectrometry, and functional analyses of flower morphology, movement, and pollination.

Funding Notes:

This PhD opportunity is available to self-funded students. Bench fees may apply. For more information please contact the project supervisor.

How to apply:

To apply or make an enquiry, please visit postgraduate research: Biological sciences

All applications should use our standard application forms and follow the instructions given under the ‘Research Degrees’ heading on the following webpages: http://www.port.ac.uk/application-fees-and-funding/applying-postgraduate/#rd.

When applying please note the project code - BIOL3170217