Understanding the scope and future of global plant adaptation to herbivore attack

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation

Primary Supervisor:

Matt Clark

Life Sciences Department, NHM

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Secondary Supervisor:

Jon Bridle

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Project Description:

Unlike animals, plants can not physically remove themselves from danger or attack. Instead, they respond through the evolution of rapid changes in their biochemistry, cell biology as well longer term strategies. In the short term, these responses include the increased synthesis of chemicals that reduce their nutritional appeal, and even poison their attackers. This is linked with signalling from the attacked tissue to the rest of plant to increase the defensive stance of the plant. We have previously published a method to measure spatially and temporally gene expression changes the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana responds to pathogen signals (Giolai et al. Plant Methods 2019), we now have developed the technique to encompass herbivore attack (Giolai in prep).
In this project we will combine genomics, bioinformatics and ecology using our assay to study how Arabidopsis thaliana ecotypes from across the world vary in their evolved responses to attack. The 1001 Arabidopsis genome project allows us to screen diverse ecotypes within this species from every continent but (Antarctica) which are already sequenced and phenotyped, then to connect genomics with climatic variation and abundance and diversity of herbivores. This approach will allow use of genome wide association screens for loci that affect polygenic traits (https://aragwas.1001genomes.org/#/) associated with plant defence, and to better understand future plant evolution to increased herbivory in a warmed world. As well as genomics, the project has substantial scope for experimental and quantitative genetic, as well as ecological analyses, depending on the interests of the applicant.

Policy Impact of Research:

A better understanding of plant defence mechanisms is critical to understanding plant evolution, the arms race with herbivores and their different forms of attack. Practically this could lead to improved resistances in crops either by breeding, engineering and/or the use of defence stimulating sprays, which have the potential to be much less environmentally damaging than pesticide sprays.

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