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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

New tools for conservation: dissecting the relative contribution of genetic and epigenetic changes to adaptive evolution

Supervisor: Dr Christophe Eizaguirre

Project description

The current age has been named the “Earth’s sixth extinction”, as human-mediated extinction rates rival those of the five previous mass extinction events. Conservation has hence become a core field in Biology: however, most advances are from a genetic perspective.

To advance our understanding of the adaptive potential of vertebrate species and its role in conservation, I propose a ground-breaking approach to dissect the relative contribution of genetic and epigenetic changes to adaptive evolution. Although disputed, it has been suggested that adaptive potential may not solely rely on genetic variation, but also on phenotypic and epigenetic variation. Particularly, upon rapid environmental changes, phenotypes may change and play a role in rescuing endangered populations. Yet, whether such phenotypic changes reflect genetic shifts or individual plastic responses to environment change remains unknown.

To address this key question, we propose to use the three-spined stickleback as model organism. We will assemble populations with varying levels of genetic diversity and expose them to increased parasitism and temperature. Specifically, we will:

  • Identify genomic regions underpinning parasite and temperature adaptation;
  • Investigate the stability of epigenetic changes over generations as responses to selective pressures;
  • Elucidate the link between genetic diversity - propensity to epigenetic changes, and the extent of phenotypic variation;
  • Develop state-of-the-art tools for conservation programmes that incorporate a complete evolutionary response.

We will then verify and synthesize our results by screening these genes in a wide range of populations with varying levels of genetic diversity and demographic histories. The anticipated results of this proposal will significantly extend the current frontier of our knowledge regarding the adaptive potential of species and how to best protect vertebrates under conservation threat.

Our Lab
Our group for Evolutionary and Conservation Genetics is based on the Mile End Campus of Queen Mary University of London. We focus on understanding the maintenance of species’ adaptive potential using laboratory model systems such as the stickleback fish and endangered species such as the loggerhead turtles. For more info visit:  
The group is part of the School for Biological and Chemical Sciences. This diverse environment makes it particularly prone to interdisciplinary approach to evolutionary problems. 
In addition to the vibrant research environment offered at QMUL, London is an ideal place to study Evolutionary Biology with many organizations around all linked by the Centre for Ecology and Evolution.

Eligibility and applying

International students must provide evidence of proficient English language skills in addition to meeting our academic requirements. See our entry requirements page for further information.

Potential candidates should contact Dr Eizaguirre by e-mail ( and submit their CV and a cover letter explaining their eligibility and interest in this project.

See also

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