The Genomics of Rapid Adaptation in Plants

Project Description

*** Fully funded 3.5 year PhD position ***

Life on Earth is facing unprecedented challenges as a result of climate change. Understanding how organisms rapidly adapt to their environment is essential in not only reducing the number of species that will go extinct, but also in safeguarding future food production. Adaptation requires genetic variation for natural selection to act on. This project will focus on the processes that result in genes present in some individuals but not others from the same species, and ultimately how this variation impacts adaptation.

As part of this project, the student will combine cutting-edge genomic techniques, comparative analyses and experimental approaches to study two contributors of intra-specific gene content variation; [1] lateral gene transfer (LGT) and [2] extrachromosomal circular DNA (eccDNA). LGT can enable organisms to evolve beyond their innate capability by borrowing genetic information from distant relatives, and eccDNA can act as a vehicle for evolutionary change based on lifetime experience. The student will use the grass family as a model system, a key group of plants that cover 30-40% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface and produce a majority of our food.

The student will receive training in a broad range of skills (including fieldwork in the UK and abroad, molecular ecology laboratory techniques, and genomics), with the exact focus of the project being flexible so that it can be tailored to the students interests.

Funding Information

This is a fully-funded 3.5-year project for UK students and/or UK permanent residents, including a stipend of £15,609 per year (2021 rate).

Eligibility Requirements

First class or upper second 2(i) in a relevant subject. To formally apply for a PhD, you must complete the University’s application form using the following link: View Website

*All applicants should ensure that both references are uploaded onto their application as a decision will be unable to be made without this information.*

Application Process

For informal queries please contact Dr Luke Dunning ([email protected]).

Supplementary Information

Science Graduate School:

As a PhD student in one of the science departments at the University of Sheffield, you’ll be part of the Science Graduate School. You’ll get access to training opportunities designed to support your career development by helping you gain professional skills that are essential in all areas of science. You’ll be able to learn how to recognise good research and research behaviour, improve your communication abilities and experience the breadth of technologies that are used in academia, industry and many related careers. Visit to learn more.


Relevant recent publications:
[1] Hibdige SG, Raimondeau P, Christin PA, Dunning LT (2021) Widespread lateral gene transfer among grasses. New Phytologist. 230:2474-2486
[2] Dunning LT, Christin PA (2020) Reticulate evolution, lateral gene transfer, and innovation in plants. American Journal of Botany. 107:541-4.
[3] Dunning LT, Olofsson JK., Parisod C, Choudhury RR, Moreno-Villena JJ, Yang Y, Dionora J, Quick WP, Park M, Bennetzen JL, Besnard G, Nosil P, Osborne CP, Christin PA (2019) Lateral transfers of large DNA fragments spread functional genes among grasses. PNAS. 116:4416-4425.
Popular science articles:
[1] Dunning LT. 2021. Natural GM: how plants and animals steal genes from other species to accelerate evolution. The Conversation.
Lab websites:
[1] Dunning Lab:
[2] Christin Lab:
@LukeTDunning @PACgrass

To apply for this PhD, please email

Before sending your email, please double check you have followed all guidelines in this listing and have included a reference number if asked to do so.