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B338: Forecasting shifts in the bioclimatic distributions of canopy trees using genomics (Lead Supervisor: Andrew Tanentzap, Plant Sciences)

Supervisor: Andrew Tanentzap (Plant Sciences)

Importance of the area of research:

Trees provide habitat for much of the world’s biodiversity and deliver vital ecological services.  Identifying the factors underlying their geographic distributions and their potential response to future climate change is therefore important.  For example, mortality may be particularly sensitive to waterlogging, especially in north temperate regions, which are predicted to become wetter.  Research in our group is also showing that physiological traits of disparate plant families change predictably along such climatic stress gradients and that trait evolution along molecular phylogenies explains subsequent species distributions.  Our aim is now to harness the increasing availability of genomics data to link trait evolution and ecological dynamics with underlying molecular mechanisms (e.g. Brunner et al. 2004), so as to improve predictions of vegetation change in response to climate change.

Project summary:

The aim of this studentship is to test whether the genotypic and phenotypic expression of traits associated with water and temperature stress correlate with the bioclimatic distributions of tree species.  The project will utilize both computational and experimental approaches.  Computationally, we will relate the bioclimatic niche space occupied by different species to expression profiles for a subset of genes implicated in drought, waterlogging, and temperature responses.  We will then focus on a subset of response traits, such as stomatal conductance and aerenchyma volume, and grow saplings of different species (e.g. Populus, Betula, Pinus) under varying environmental conditions for ca. 3-months.  We will record physiological responses to abiotic stress and try to link these to macro-ecological patterns.

What the student will do:

The student will mine primary literature (e.g. Le Provost et al. 2012), genomics databases (e.g., and species-specific expression atlases (e.g. to find expression profiles in ca. 10-15 species exposed to different environmental conditions.  Should data be limited, we will work with model organisms such as Arabidopsis, Capsella, Cleome, etc…  They will then collate species presence and spatially-explicit bioclimatic data from global databases using custom programming scripts and calculate measures of niche space/volume that will be modelled statistically from genomics data.  The student will also have to design and execute the growth experiment.  This will involve recording physiological traits and reconstructing them along molecular phylogenies to test whether trait evolution explains biogeography (e.g. Bocxlaer et al. 2010).  Finally, the student may try to measure expression of genes implicated in stress responses.  Partly, this project would suit a molecular biologist interested in working at the forefront of ecological research. 

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Brunner, A.M. et al. 2004. Poplar genome sequence: functional genomics in an ecologically dominant plant species. TRENDS in Plant Science, vol. 9, pp.49-56.

Le Provost, G. et al. 2012. Role of waterlogging-responsive genes in shaping interspecific differentiation between two sympatric oak species.  Tree Physiology, vol 32, pp.119–134.

Van Bocxlaer, I. et al. 2010. Gradual adaptation toward a range-expansion phenotype initiated the global radiation of toads. Science, vol. 327, pp.679-682.

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project

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