Epigenetic stress diagnosis of Bilberry and characterisation of stress interactions that facilitate Phytophthora infection (PhD Scholarship)

Epigenetic stress diagnosis of Bilberry and characterisation of stress interactions that facilitate Phytophthora infection

Aberystwyth University, IBERS

Project ID: AU30011
Annual Stipend: £14,340
Application Deadline: 20th November 2017

DNA methylation is the addition of a methyl group to the cytosine bases in genomic DNA of higher organisms and does not change the genetic code. Cytosine methylation nevertheless alters the structure and thermodynamic properties of the DNA and is used by most organisms as a means of control of gene expression. Which cytosine bases are methylated determines the nature and extent of the expression of many genes, and DNA methylation has been demonstrated to play a key role in development and in coordinating stress responses. Thus, the global distribution of methylation sites (known as marks) changes as an individual grows and is exposed to different types of stress. One important property of DNA methylation is that it is easy to initiate new methylation sites on the DNA but these are infrequently demethylated. This means that methylations tend to accumulate during development or ageing, but also accumulate through exposure to biotic or abiotic stresses. This last feature means that we can use the patterning of large numbers of these methylation marks diagnose to various sorts of stress exposure, including exposure pathogens and pests. Crucially, although the production of eggs and sperm does remove many of these methylation marks, a subset of are inherited between generations.  These features provide opportunities to characterise the impact on individual stresses and combinations of stresses on the health and survival of animals and plants.

Bilberry (Vaccinium spp.) is an important component of upland heaths, grasslands and of the woodland floor. It is sometimes known to be susceptible to infection by Phytophthora but presence of the disease only occasionally symptomatic in bilberry and death is typically highly localised and patchy. This pattern of damage is most consistent with acquired susceptibility to the disease; where the plant needs to be weakened by prior exposure to other stresses before becoming susceptible to phytophthora. The central tent of this thesis is to use epigenetic profiling to identify the combination of stressors that are most potent in weakening bilberry for phytophthora infection.  To achieve this, the student will first seek to exploit various means of assessing global methylation patterns to build a picture of the methylation pattern responses of bilberry (Vaccinium species) to the most important biotic (e.g. grazing) and abiotic stresses (e.g. water and temperature stresses). These patterns will be verified by field observations and experimentation, and related to microclimatic distribution of the species in the field. Focus of attention will then turn to the survival of plants with different stress histories and epigenetic profiles when inoculated with Phytophthora. The aim will be to identify the stresses and epigenetic profiles most likely to result in symptomatic infection by Phytophthora. The predictive power of epigenetic profiling will be assessed in populations exposed to Phytophthora infections. The studentship will operate in collaboration with NRW (Chris Jones) and Forest Research (Tom Jenkins).

Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarships (KESS 2) is a pan-Wales higher level skills initiative led by Bangor University on behalf of the HE sector in Wales. It is part funded by the Welsh Government’s European Social Fund (ESF) convergence programme for West Wales and the Valleys.

The successful candidate will need to be resident in the convergence area on registration, and must have the right to work in the region on qualification. The successful applicant should have a minimum of a 1st or good 2:1 in a relevant degree, and be available to take up the studentship by January 2018. The project is part-funded by the European Social Fund (ESF) through the European Union’s Convergence programme administered by the Welsh Government. KESS II PhD scholarships are collaborative awards with external partners. (Applicants need to only apply, they do not need to search for partners).

To apply, please submit the following to the Postgraduate Admissions Office (address below) by 20th November 2017.

  1. A completed Research Programme Application Form, two references. Application and reference forms may be downloaded from http://www.aber.ac.uk/en/postgrad/howtoapply/
  2. A completed KESS II Participant proposal form (put the reference number AU30011 in the top right hand box of the application form) and an up-to-date CV. KESS II application forms are available to download at the link below.


  1. A PhD proposal of up to 1,000 words where you expand on your experience and interests and describe why you are a good candidate for this research studentship. Please refer to the Project Description.

Value of Award: A stipend of £14,340 (rising in accordance with inflation for the remaining two years). Each scholarship has an additional budget for travel, equipment/consumables and training to support your research. KESS II PhD Scholarship holders do not pay fees.

Length: Full-time for 3 years. (Theses must be submitted 6 months after the funded three year study period.)

Training: The achievement of a Postgraduate Skills Development Award (PSDA) is compulsory for each KESS II scholar (The PSDA is based on a 60 credit award, which is an additional award to the PhD).

Eligibility: To be eligible to apply for a KESS II award, you must be resident, upon starting the scholarship, in the Convergence Area of Wales and you must be able to take paid employment in the Convergence area on completion of the scholarship.

The Convergence Area means the following counties of Wales:

Isle of Anglesey
Neath Port Talbot
Rhondda Cynon Taff

For further student eligibility criteria related to the individual projects, please view the details of the individual project above.

Informal enquiries should be made to Prof. Mike Wilkinson at mjw19@aber.ac.uk   or 01970 823204

Address for applications:

Postgraduate Admissions Office
Recruitment & Admissions
Student Welcome Centre
Aberystwyth University
SY23 3FB

Quote Reference AU30011

Closing date for applications 20th November 2017