Evolutionary biology and ecology

  • Duration: 3 years
  • Admission: academic qualifications and interview
  • Coordinator: prof. Guido Barbujani
  • Head office: Università di Ferrara; agreement with Università degli studi di Parma
  • Department: Scienze della vita e biotecnologie
  • Study abroad: not compulsory
  • Curriculum:
    1. Biology and biotechnology of plants
    2. Ecology and ethology
    3. Evolution
  • Educational purpose: Evolutionary Biology and Ecology are an integrated area of research which in many prominent scientific institutions belong to the same Department. The graduate program in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology focuses on the study of biological diversity and its evolution, of animal behavior, and of the relationships of all living creatures, including humans, among them and with the environment.
    By integrating information ranging from the molecular level to the levels of the organism, the population and the community, graduate students are encouraged to develop their research in both basic and applied fields of investigation. Innovative methods are given a central role, both in fieldwork and in the laboratory and numerical analyses, the latter based on state-of-the-art biostatistical and simulation methods.
    Therefore, the holder of a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology will be a highly qualified expert in the analysis and interpretation of biological processes and in the management of natural resources, who will be able to independently plan and conduct empirical research, to thoroughly exploit public bioinformatic resources, to develop quantitative models and to in-depth analyse biological data.
  • Educational plan: the three curricula reflect the main subdivisions in the integrated area of research of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and the composition of the Faculty, whose main scientific interests and expertise are in Plant Biology, Ecology, Evolutionary Genetics and Animal Behaviour.
    The Ph.D. programme is structured so as to provide the students with: (1) an adequate background, both theoretical and practical, in the basic subfields of biology (animal and plant biology, physiology, ecology, genetics, biostatistics and bioinformatics) and, depending on the students’ choice, in more specialised subfields (neurosciencese, behaviour, etology, molecular evolution) including the applications of plant biology to environmental, agro-industrial and farmaceutic problems, and to the preservation of the artistic patrimony; (2) occasions of working experiences and stages in research institutions, in Italy and abroad, where students will have a chance to apply methods and skills acquired in the initial phase of the programme; (3) all the necessary technical skills to write scientific texts and grants, and for an efficient communication of science to the broader public.
    The teaching activities of the first year include short courses and cycles of seminars, concentrated in short time-spans of intense activity. The graduate students will develop presentations on both her/his research work and on the main emerging research topics, and will be updated on recent literature by periodical meetings in journal club format. Classes will be given by personnel of the two universities, but will include talks and seminars run by members of other research institutions, with which scientific collaboration is in progress.
    At the end of the first year, the graduate student presents her/his research plan for the following two years, during which a stay abroad of at least 6 months, although not compulsory, is strongly encouraged. In the past, in both Universities participating to this project, experiences of this kind have been both frequent and productive, leading in some cases to joint degrees with foreign Universities (in Germany, France and Spain). Each graduate student has the obligation to present a yearly report, which is discussed in the presence of the Faculty and of the other graduate students. 
    The final stages of preparation of the dissertation are continuously supervised by the Faculty, with the help, when necessary, of independent external experts. Graduate students  are encouraged to publish the results of their research in International journals with Impact factor; the highest grade (Excellent) for the dissertation defense can only be obtained by candidates who have at least two papers accepted for publication in peer-reviewed international journals.
  • Research topics
    1.1 Applied plant biology. Genetic bases of in vitro plant morphogenesis, in vitro culture and application to ex-situ conservation of endangered wild species and control of genetic stability. Molecular markers for the identification of vegetable sources in food and phytochemical preparations. Physiological-environmental interactions in lichens, plant response to heavy metals and other biotic and abiotic stresses. Photosynthesis: physiological, biochemical and evolutionary aspects.
    1.2 Applied physiology and biotechnology of plants. Molecular basis of plant defense responses to pathogens and methods for plant defence induction mediated by low environmental impact molecules. Uses of plants or bacteria for enzyme production, industrial application and biotransformation. Plant biodiversity and conservation in Ecuador. Plant amino acids metabolism in response to biotic and abiotic stresses. Carotenoid and phenol accumulation in plants. Application of algae biotechnology in industrial production of metabolites and bioremediation.
    1.3 Global climate change. Ecological aspects of cold-adapted plants; plant responses to climate and environmental changes; plant-soil interactions.
    2.1 Ecology. Ecology of inland waters, ecology of transitional environments and estuaries, marine ecosystems, population dynamics, extinction risk assessment, structure and function of ecological communities, biogeochemical cycles, host-parasite interactions, population genetics, ecotoxicology.
    2.2 Applied ecology. Renewable resource management, environmental impact assessment, strategic environmental assessment, environmental sustainability assessment, bioeconomic and cost-benefit analysis for territory management assessment, ecological techniques for environmental remediation.
    2.3 Terrestrial ecosystems. Biological pest control and applied ecology of agroforestry systems. Biodiversity conservation in terrestrial biocenosis. Soil quality: conservation and remediation. Land degradation and desertification: assessment and remediation. Effects of pollution on terrestrial ecosystems and soil, and remediation technologies for contamined sites.
    2.4 Ethology. Animal orientation behavior, homing and compass orientation. Extraretinal photoreception in Vertebrates. Behavioral endrocrinology. Effects of steroid hormones on sexual behavior. Animal courtship and sexual selection. The evolution of courtship displays. Hormonal control of migratory behavior. Activation and deactivation of migratory impulses. Eco-ethology and sociobiology in several parasitic and free-living species of Formicidae, with focus on the mechanisms of communication and social organization (chemical, morpho-functional and evolutionary aspects), symbiotic interactions between ants and other organisms (insects, plants and microorganisms), multitrophic interactions, analysis of community structure by ecological dominance and behavior indices.
    2.5 Parasitism in aquatic organisms and assessment of fish health status. Health status of aquatic Invertebrates and Vertebrates, in livestock and natural environment. Classification, biological cycle and morphology of Metazoan parasites in aquatic organisms. Hystopathological effects induced by parasites and immune response in Vertebrate hosts, in particular fishes. Nutrition and parasite interaction. Interactions between parasites and pollutants. Monitoring of parasitic fauna in ichthyic species of commercial e/o faunistic importance, in fresh and brackish water. The use of cellular biomarkers in fish for water quality assessment.
    3.1 Population and conservation genetics. Genetic variation in human and other Vertebrate populations. Ancient DNA. Influence of past demographic processes in shaping genetic variation and signatures of environmental genetic adaptation. Inference of population structure. Simulation study of evolutionary processes, comparisons between real and simulated data for hypothesis testing. Molecular and computational methods for the study and conservation of threatened and endangered species.
    3.2 Human Genetics. DNA variation in pathologically relevant genes and linked genomic regions. Development of statistical models for the analysis of biological databases and the identification of associations between genes and diseases. Complex segregation analysis based on pedigree data and bioinformatic tools. Hypotheses testing of selective pressures and adaptation mechanisms which led to the present distribution of genetic diversity. Pharmacogenomics.
    3.3 Immune system in aquatic Vertebrates. Immune system in Teleost fishes: ontogenesis and leukocytes differentiation, improvements in vaccination of larvae,  functional and molecular characterization of leukocytes, immune response, molecular, cellular, anatomical and functional adaptation of immune system of fishes in extreme environments, as the Artic and Antartic teleost and mesopelagic fishes. Investigation of marine Mammal immune system: transcriptome analysis, cellular models and morpho-functional characterization for the integrated analysis of genetic and environemental factors, in Cetacea and Pinnipeds.
    3.4. Molecular chronobiology. Clock-genes and evolution of circadian organization in Vertebrates. Circadian photoreception. Genome-wide bioinformatic and molecular analysis of circadian clock-related polymorphisms in humans.
    3.5. Evolution of response to oxidative stress. Role of endogenous and exogenous oxidative stress on target organs; nutritional therapy/treatments to modulate molecular, metabolic and cellular responses. Effects of endogenous (ageing) and exogenous (CS and O3) oxidative stresses on carriers involved in cellular trafficking of vitamin E, in skin and lung tissues; in vivo models of wound healing skin modulation by oxidative stress, and use of natural molecules and functional differentiation to improve the process; oxidative stress as possible pathogenic factor in Rett syndrome.
  • Research topics for the competition