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Understanding signalling networks underpinning key developmental processes during plant evolution

Primary Supervisor: Dr Juliet Coates, School of Biosciences

Secondary supervisor: Depending on exact area taken up, Mike Tomlinson, Philippa Borrill, Estrella Luna-Diez, Graeme Kettles, Christine Foyer, Dan Gibbs or Eugenio Sanchez-Moran.

PhD project title: Understanding signalling networks underpinning key developmental processes during plant evolution

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

    Plants first appeared on land almost half a billion years ago. All land plants likely evolved from a single aquatic green algal ancestor. The first land plants overcame huge stress challenges in the form of desiccation, UV light and the effects of gravity in the absence of water. In a relatively short space of time land plants inhabited nearly every ecological niche across the globe. The morphology of land plants became more complex enabling the appearance of larger plants.

    There are two overarching questions that can be addressed by a MIBTP PhD project.

    • How were the first plants able to "move" and distribute themselves, whilst evolving into new species able to inhabit a diverse range of ecological niches? This distribution underpinned the evolution of animals on land and contributed to the formation of soils. We know that the early-diverging plant distribution by spores, via the germination process, has both similarities and key differences with seed germination in flowering plants. Understanding these differences will tell us how environmental sensing mechanisms and the germination process evolved in economically important plant species and will suggest new ways of regulating plant sensing mechanisms and seed biology.
    • How did morphological complexity and environmental responses evolve in land plants? Land plants became larger and more complex over time. Our previous research shows that some key developmental regulators are conserved between the model plants Physcomitrella (moss), Arabidopsis (model angiosperm) and crop species (including tomato and rice), while others have acquired new and divergent roles. We use Physcomitrella and Arabidopsis to understand detailed cellular mechanisms of plant development, particularly root development, so that we can apply this knowledge to generate crops with improved traits (architecture, stress resistance) and understand evolution of these traits. A particular focus in the lab currently is on nutrient sensing. A new direction will be to assay pathogen susceptibility in certain transgenic plants.

    A PhD project would involve either a forward-genetic screen in an early-diverging land plant (moss) to uncover a novel germination-regulatory signalling pathway, or a reverse-genetic/molecular-genetic approach identifying new plant developmental regulators involved in environmental sensing and response. In each case, genes identified would have their functions compared in moss, Arabidopsis and crops using molecular-genetic, bioinformatic, evo-devo and physiological approaches. The exact project would depend on the candidate’s expertise and the preliminary data generated in the lab between now and the start of the project.


    1. Vesty EF et al. (2016) The decision to germinate is regulated by divergent molecular networks in spores and seeds. New Phytologist, doi 10.1111/nph.14018
    2. Moody LA et al. (2016) An ancient and conserved function for Armadillo-related proteins in the control of spore and seed germination by abscisic acid. New Phytologist doi: 10.1111/nph.13938
    3. Gibbs DJ et al. (2014) AtMYB93 is a novel negative regulator of lateral root development in Arabidopsis. New Phytologist 203 p.1194-1207

    BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Sustainable Agriculture and Food: Plant and Crop Science & Understanding the rules of life: Plant Science

    Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

    • Each project involves a mixture of well-established and newly-emergent techniques.
    • Depending on exact project:
    • Mutagenesis, genome resequencing, bulk segregant analysis, mapping by high-throughput sequencing
    • OR reverse genetics/molecular genetics/functional genomics/RNAseq or proteomics
    • PLUS (in both cases) high-resolution imaging of plant development; large-scale phenotyping (physiology, pathology); analysis of metabolic products including ions and lipids.

    Contact: Dr Juliet Coates, University of Birmingham