Understanding the rules of life

Bioscience for sustainable agriculture and food

Category: Standard Studentships

Understanding the genomics and ecology of floral nectar to enhance crop-pollinator interactions

Project No. 2311


Primary Supervisor

Dr Maria Clara Castellanos – University of Sussex


Dr Mark Chapman – University of Southampton


Floral nectar plays a fundamental role in crop-pollinator interactions, but our understanding of the genetic basis, plasticity, and ecological costs of nectar traits is still limited.

These aspects of nectar biology are crucial when considering how to develop crop varieties that are more attractive to pollinators. This in turn is urgent, because there is strong evidence of pollinator declines in the UK and around the world. Pollinators increase yield and reduce the variability of yield in space and time for many important crops, so their decline has potential impacts on sustainable agricultural productivity and food security.

The importance of animal pollination has inspired recommendations to optimize insect visitation to crops. This includes the development of varieties that are more rewarding to pollinators via increased nectar quantity and quality. This project will explore the interaction between genetic and ecological aspects to inform the role of nectar variation in pollination success and the viability of selection of nectar-enhanced varieties. For this, the student will:

1) study the genetic basis and plasticity of nectar traits using common gardens and controlled crosses combined with genome-wide association (GWA). This will include understanding genetic correlations with other plant traits that might enhance or constraint selection on nectar traits.
2) study the cost of nectar production, which is still poorly understood for many plants, but central to the idea that nectar-enhanced varieties are possible to breed,
3) measure nectar quality and quantity and their effect on yields, to determine the importance of nectar variability on pollination quality and homogeneity.

Focal species will be selected among commercially important crops with genomic tools available and representing different plant families (sunflower, strawberry, faba beans, oilseed rape).

Results will help us understand how improved nectar rewards boost productivity while mitigating the declines of pollinator communities in agricultural and natural landscapes.

Ideally the candidate will have a strong interest in the evolution and ecology of plants and their interaction with animals, and be willing to learn new field and analytical techniques.