PhD Studentship: Plant Science (Stellenbosch)

Project Title: Functional Characterisation of Genetic Factors Involved in Grapevine Surface Formation 

Tutors: Claudio Moser (Fondazione Edmund Mach, Italy), Justin Lashbrooke (Stellenbosch University, South Africa) and Melané Vivier (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

Key words: Grapevine, cuticle, ripening, secondary metabolism, transcriptional regulation

Location and Duration: We offer competitive funding for 4 years, for a PhD project co-hosted by Fondazione Edmund Mach, in Italy, and Stellenbosch University, in South Africa. The student will spend approximately 50% of his/her time in each location. The project will commence as soon as a suitable candidate is found.

Fondazione Edmund Mach and the Moser lab: Fondazione Edmund Mach is located in the nortern part of Italy, a one hour drive from Verona. The research centre of the institute performs interdisciplinary research in the fields of modern and sustainable agriculture, food and nutrition and environment and health. The central goal of the Moser group (housed in the Genomics and Biology of Fruit Crop Department) is the study of genes identified in the genomes of grapevine, apple and strawberry in order to dissect the molecular basis of fruit quality and plant defence against pathogens.

Stellenbosch University and the Vivier lab: Work at Stellenbosch University will be performed under the guidance of Dr Lashbrooke and Prof. Vivier, at the Institute of Wine Biotechnology. Research in this group focuses of secondary metabolism in grapevine and the regulation of this metabolism in response to environmental changes. The institute comprises of platforms focussing on transformation and tissue culture, analytical chemistry and molecular biology.

Project description: The surface of the above ground parts of plants is covered by a waxy layer named the cuticle. This surface structure plays a major role in both vegetative and reproductive organs, contributing to the plant’s protection from a range of abiotic and biotic stresses and to fruit postharvest quality traits such as storage, transport and pigmentation. These parameters are particularly important in terms of grapevine cultivation, and the production of table grapes and wine. Indeed, waxiness of grape berries is associated with fruit firmness and extended shelf life, as well as resistance to fungal infection. The main aim of this project will be to identify, and characterise, genetic elements that are key to surface formation in grapevine and to develop functional markers for grapevine breeding. The student will build on the knowledge generated in the Moser lab concerning the role of the VvERF45 gene, which was found to regulate both ripening and surface formation; while also investigating candidate genes from a recently performed genomic survey for wax formation in grapevine. Genes will be characterized in detail by a variety of genomic, molecular, chemical and histological methods. And the student will likely be exposed to, and perform experiments using Electron microscopy, quantitative real time PCR, Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry, plant physiological and pathogen assays, generation of transgenic plants, promoter trans-activation assays, amongst other technologies. The information generated from these experiments will result in a greater understanding of grapevine surface formation, particularly in the context of fruit ripening, pathogen defence and water stress, while identified functional markers may be used for marker assisted selection in grapevine breeding programs.

Background of the potential candidate: The project will be based on molecular biology (cloning, nucleic acid isolation, biochemical assays, transgenic plants etc..) and therefore the student will preferentially have expertise in these methods. In addition, genomic and chemical analyses will be extensively used, and it is desirable that the candidate have an interest in these approaches. Further, fluent English speaking and writing and the ability to function in a team-oriented environment are desirable.

Reference papers: 

• Leida et al (2016). Insights into the Role of the Berry-Specific Ethylene Responsive Factor VviERF045. Frontiers in Plant Science, 7, 1793. 

• Lashbrooke et al (2015). The Tomato MIXTA-Like Transcription Factor Coordinates Fruit Epidermis Conical Cell Development and Cuticular Lipid Biosynthesis and Assembly. Plant Physiology, 169, 2553-2571.

Application procedure: Send a brief academic CV and half page motivation letter to Dr Lashbrooke (LashbrookeJ@arc.agric.za) before August 31st 2018, with “Grapevine Surface PhD application” as the subject of the email. You should also indicate when you would be available to start the PhD. 

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