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Research Assistant (Research Experience Placement – Nicholson Lab)

A Research Assistant (Research Experience Placement) position is available in the Dr Paul Nicholson lab at the John Innes Centre during the summer of 2019, supported by the BBSRC Norwich Research Park Doctoral Training Partnership.

The Placement is designed to: give a promising undergraduate a first-hand opportunity to gain greater experience of research in the biosciences; raise the profile of research careers amongst undergraduate students; and interest students in postgraduate research in strategically important areas for BBSRC.

Genetics of wheat blast resistance

Wheat blast is a destructive disease of wheat in Brazil and other countries of South America. In 2016, it appeared in Bangladesh causing devastation, and the following year it spread to India. The major wheat belts of India and China have warm, wet climates that enable proliferation of this disease making it a potential threat to food security in this region.

The causal agent of wheat blast is the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathovar tritici (to differentiate it from the type causing rice blast – also a devastating disease). Both the rice and wheat pathovars exhibit a ‘race structure’, i.e. they can infect some varieties while others remain resistant. Whether a particular wheat or rice cultivar is resistant depends on the race attacking it. Many (but not all) resistance genes in rice have been shown to encode NLR intracellular immune receptors. We have demonstrated that the same situation exists in wheat (given the race structure of the tritici pathovar).

We have a set of contemporary strains of the wheat blast pathogen and have developed high throughput seedling and detached head-based wheat blast assays. We have a configured diversity panel of the D genome donor to wheat (Triticum tauschii) which we have shown to contain functional wheat blast NLR resistance genes.

Our close collaborators have previously developed NLR resistance gene enrichment sequencing (RenSeq) to selectively sequence the NLR repertoire of the wheat genome, thus reducing the cost and computational challenge of scrutinising the ~2600 NLRs in wheat. Very recently, they coupled RenSeq to association genetics on a diversity panel of the wild diploid wheat Triticum tauschii. The resulting application, AgRenSeq, allowed them to discover and clone, in a matter of months, three stem rust resistance genes.

Using the AgRenSeq analytical pipeline we have identified several resistance genes that function against individual strains of wheat blast. The wild ancestors of domesticated wheat (such as T. tauschii) represent a rich source of genetic variation with huge potential for improving disease resistance. Deploying this genetic diversity into elite, cultivated wheat by traditional breeding takes many years for just a single resistance gene. However, using the AgRenSeq pipeline enables the rapid acceleration of breeding by producing so-called ‘perfect’ markers for use in marker-assisted selection programmes. Most importantly, perfect markers allow breeders to combine resistances to maintain durability of disease resistance and avoid the boom-bust cycles of the past.

This project will involve the screening of the T. tauschii diversity panel with a new isolate of wheat blast to identify NLR genes conferring resistance against this isolate. The project will involve a broad range of techniques including microbiology, plant production and pathology experiments and bioinformatics analysis.

The project addresses the BBSRC priority area of Food Security and is one of two project options that we are offering on wheat-focused food security.


To be eligible to apply you will need to be registered at a UK University and be expected to obtain a first or upper second class honours degree in a basic science (including mathematics and engineering) or veterinary subject.

These projects are designed for middle-year undergraduates to find out more about their suitability and aptitude for further research. Applications for projects in an area of science different from the applicant’s main subject area are encouraged. Applications should include a CV detailing educational history, grades thus far, and any additional scientific/research/academic achievements, etc. In addition, provide a personal statement specifying which project(s) you are applying to and why, with an explanation of what you hope to gain from the placement. Also include the contact details of at least one academic referee.

This placement is for eight weeks during the summer vacation of 2019. Each placement-holder will be paid the National Living Wage. The student and the awarding department are required to submit a brief report on the outcome of the placement to BBSRC on completion of the placement.

Note this placement does not meet the requirements for Visa sponsorship and will exceed the permitted work for anyone already on a Tier 4 visa.

We are an equal opportunities employer, actively supporting inclusivity and diversity. As a Disability Confident organisation, we guarantee to offer an interview to all disabled applicants who meet the essential criteria for this vacancy. The John Innes Centre is also proud to hold a Gold Award from Athena SWAN and is a member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme.

The John Innes Centre is a registered charity (No. 223852) grant-aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and is an Equal Opportunities Employer.

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