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PhD Studentship: How Did Seed Plants Create Male and Female Sexes - The Evolutionary Origins of Heterospory

University of Birmingham - School of Biosciences

Qualification Type: PhD
Location: Birmingham
Funding for: UK Students, EU Students, International Students
Funding amount: See advert
Hours: Full Time
Placed On: 28th November 2023
Closes: 4th January 2024

Like animals, plants reproduce through having sex- namely, the fusion of haploid male and female sex cells. Although this process is superficially similar between animals and plants, the two lineages each invented it separately as a form of convergent evolution(1). As with animals, the male and female sex cells of plants (for convenience, also called sperm and eggs) are produced by meiosis, halving the cell’s genetic material to create haploid cells and allowing recombination (shuffling of sections between chromosomes) to occur. In modern plants we are used to thinking about ‘male’ meiosis a flower’s stamens (to generate sperm-carrying pollen) and ‘female’ meiosis in the flower gynoecium (to generate the egg-carrying embryo-sac). Plant reproduction has two key differences from animals:

  • In most plants their sex is not genetically predetermined, producing both male and female reproductive organs in a context-dependent manner.
  • The single haploid cells produced by meiosis do not immediately become sex cells, but divide by mitosis into multicellular haploid tissues that produce the sex cells. In flowering plants development of this haploid ‘generation’ follows predetermined genetic programmes.

Genes that control male and female meiosis in plants have mostly been identified through studies in the model flowering plant, Arabidopsis thaliana(2). Many genes are similar between them, but some are sex-specific and so are thought to determine ‘male’ or ‘female’ identity. However, older plant groups (the mosses, clubmosses and ferns) use a different, older form of plant reproduction, from which the modern sexual mechanisms of plants evolved. Critically, this ancestral mechanism had only type of meiosis(1), leading to a single type of haploid organism that makes both male and female sex cells. This ancient mechanism is called homospory. How separate male and female meiosis (heterospory) evolved from this remains a complete mystery, but is one of the fundamental first steps in how plants first evolved seeds(3). This project aims to investigate how heterospory first evolved, using a new genetic model in one of these homosporous plant groups- the fern Ceratopteris richardii(4). This project will attempt to answer this question using primarily ‘wet lab’-based experiments:

  • Characterise the process of meiosis in a homosporous fern by advance microscopy for the first time. To do so, we will use different DNA staining techniques, a BrdU time course and immunolocalization of meiotic specific proteins using antibodies raised from plants.
  • Identify the genes expressed during fern meiosis through RNA-seq and other molecular methods (qPCR, Fluorescent In Situ Hybridization), and test what their role in fern meiosis is through fern genetic engineering.
  • Test to see whether fern meiosis is more similar to male or female meiosis in Arabidopsis by comparing them through bioinformatics.
  • Test to see if genes found in fern meiosis can have the same function in Arabidopsis male and/or female meiosis through genetic engineering of Arabidopsis, swapping out the Arabidopsis gene for the fern copy.

If interested in applying, please contact A.R.G.Plackett@bham.ac.uk in the first instance or submit your application at https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/mibtp/index.aspx

Funding notes:

This project is offered as part of the BBSRC Midlands Integrative Biosciences Training Partnership (MIBTP). Please see https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/mibtp/phd/application/#Eligibility for further details about funding and eligibility.

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