PhD Studentship: Nongenetic Effects, Adaptation and Extinction in a Changing World: Towards a Predictive Theory

University of Exeter - College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership. The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme see

The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,553 per annum for 2017-2018, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.


Main Supervisor: Prof Stuart B Townley,  
Co-Supervisor: Dr Sinead English
Co-Supervisor: Dr Bram Kuijper

Project description:

There is growing interest in nongenetic effects (NGEs), where parents influence offspring phenotypes through the transmission of factors other than DNA, such as chromatin modifications, small RNAs or maternal hormones. While interest in NGEs has focused on their role in extended inheritance their consequences on population dynamics remain contested. Some studies predict that NGEs facilitate rapid adaptation. In contrast, others argue that NGEs enhance extinction rates. To resolve this controversy, the current project aims to use an interdisciplinary approach. First, we will derive novel eco-evolutionary models that add the evolutionary dynamic of nongenetic effects to influential models of ecological competition and predator-prey interactions. Second, we will use ecological experiments in the tsetse fly model system to assess when and where nongenetic effects result in population extinction.

Project Aims and Methods

While NGEs affect ecologically important traits, we lack quantitative tools to predict when NGEs influence extinction risk. This project fills the gap by using an exciting mix of mathematical modelling and ecological experiments in the tsetse fly system, an important disease vector. We aim to build much-needed ecological theory which includes evolving NGEs, assess how NGEs affect transient responses to ecological perturbations, measure population dynamics of experimental populations with different levels of NGEs and asses how robust these populations are to sudden perturbations. In years 1-2, the student will use expertise at Exeter to derive eco-evolutionary models where evolving nongenetic effects influence key ecological processes like intraspecific competition and transient dynamics. These models will be novel in allowing NGEs to evolve: the few population dynamic models including NGEs assume them to be constant. In years 3-3.5, the student will work at Bristol to test predictions in tsetse fly populations, which exhibit strong maternal effects that vary with maternal condition. Consequently, by manipulating maternal environment, the strength of NGEs can be varied, giving us a tool to investigate consequences on population dynamics and their role in responses to environmental shocks.


Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the project, it is suitable for candidates with a strong experimental background who are looking to grow their analytical skills (mathematics, programming). Additionally, also candidates with a more analytical background fit our profile, particularly if they have an interest in expanding their experimental skills.

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South West England