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Dr Reinmar Hager (MSc, PhD) - postgraduate opportunities

(BBSRC DTP Studentship) The effects of changing environments on phenotypic plasticity and epigenetics

We now live in a world of rapidly changing environmental conditions where species will need to adapt or perish. While populations may evolve in response to environmental change, more rapid responses may happen through processes like phenotypic plasticity. Phenotypic plasticity is a fundamental principle in evolutionary biology and refers to the ability of a single genotype to produce different phenotypes in response to differences in an individual’s environment. While the existence of plasticity has been demonstrated in a variety of organisms, we lack clear evidence showing how plasticity is adaptive given current conditions and its value under future conditions. Further, we know very little about the mechanism underlying plastic responses to changing environmental conditions but predict that epigenetic changes play a key role.


This project seeks to establish the fitness and developmental consequences of plasticity under changing conditions of environment, defined by food and shelter, and search for correlated responses in the epigenome. We will test predictions about changing environments with an individual’s lifetime may influence development and fitness in a social cockroach species. We next wish to investigate how responses to changing environments are manifest at the epigenome level by analysing patterns of global methylation. This project tackles the important question of how rapidly changing environments impact on future development and offers a great opportunity to work on phenotypic plasticity and epigenetics testing key hypothesis in behavioural and evolutionary ecology.



Genotype and epigenetic effects on development and behaviour using animal models of human social disorders and systems-genetics approaches.

A fundamental question in the study of human social behaviour is the degree to which specific genes predispose individuals to develop a certain (disease) phenotype and how genetic predisposition interacts with environmental factors to cause disease traits. Moreover, it remains often unclear how, at the molecular level, environmental factors effect changes in complex phenotypes such as behaviour. To understand the role of genes and the environment in social behaviour, this project will utilise mouse models of the human disorder Williams-Beuren syndrome (WBS), which is characterized by a set of behavioural, social and anatomical phenotypes.



This project combines empirical work on knock-out mice recording social and developmental phenotypes with a systems-analysis of known WBS genes and QTL loci associated with social behaviours to establish the genetic and phenotypic networks these genes are involved in. Further, we seek to identify potential regulatory genes and the pathways through which these genes have their effect on the disease phenotype. Further, we plan to explore what the changes are at the epigenotype level induced by differences in social environment using methylation analysis. To draw the link back to more complex behavioural phenotypes this project will investigate how ultrasound communication is affected and whether this is reflected in social and behavioural disease phenotypes. Overall, this project will link gene effects through intermediate phenotypes (methylation, gene expression) to complex phenotypes (behaviour) and thus promises to yield a comprehensive understanding of how disease phenotypes arise as a consequence of gene – environment interaction.


The project requires an enthusiastic candidate able to work across disciplines with an interest in empirical, statistical and genetics work.