Adapting to climate change: transgenerational acclimation as a mechanism of rapid evolution

Primary supervisor: 

Supervisory team: 

  • Professor Melody Clark (British Antarctic Survey) 
  • Dr Helen Findley (Plymouth Marine Laboratory) 
  • Dr Enrico Rezende (Pontifical Catholic University of Chile) 
  • Dr Pete Cotton

Project description

In the context of climate change, it is imperative to determine to what extent species have the capacity to persist in a warmer environment. Yet beyond studies in model species, we understand little of the potential for adaptation in wild populations. While traditional studies predict that climate change will lead to a reduction in biodiversity, predictions are often based on short-term experiments focusing on one life stage or generation. Recent studies show that some aquatic species can acclimate to elevated temperatures, such as those projected under climate change scenarios, across generations. This phenomenon, known as “transgenerational acclimation”, could be a powerful mechanism by which populations of some species adjust to environmental change. Despite its potential importance in modifying species’ response to novel environments, its effects on species’ ability to respond long-term to climate change, in terms of fitness and reproductive output, are largely unexplored. Moreover, our understanding of the molecular mechanisms underpinning transgenerational acclimation is limited. 

This project aims to investigate processes that lead to rapid adaptive responses by testing how parental exposure to thermally stressful environments improves offspring performance under the same conditions. 

You will use an experimental approach to test the effects of transgenerational exposure to elevated temperatures on behavioural, physiological and life-history performance of ecologically-important aquatic organisms. Physiological and lifehistory measurements will be incorporated into predictive models to forecast potential population effects of projected climate change. You will use state-of-the-art genetic sequencing and bioinformatics to examine patterns of gene expression, and correlate them with physiological and behavioural performance of amphipods acclimated to elevated temperatures, to identify which genes drive acclimation in each trait. 

You will join a multi-disciplinary team to develop expertise in ecophysiology, genomics, behavioural ecology, evolutionary biology, and population modelling. You will receive training in:

  • Animal husbandry, eco-physiological (respirometry, thermal assays) and molecular tools (RNA isolation/QC, qPCR) (UoP). 
  • Bioinformatics (BAS).
  • Population/physiological modelling (PML/UC). 
  • Data analysis, critical thinking, scientific writing. 

The ARIES DTP provides a comprehensive training programme for transferable skills. BSc degree in biology or related field. An interest in animal physiology and evolution, and strong quantitative analysis skills are essential. 

Supplementary information:

Adaptation through genetic evolution is unlikely to occur rapidly enough to allow species to cope with rapid environmental change. However, recent work has demonstrated that some organisms modulate their physiology, behaviour or lifehistories across generations. The process by which the environment experienced by the parents influences their progeny’s ability to maintain or improve performance in that environment is termed “transgenerational acclimation” (TA). Despite the recent interest on TA, questions remain unexplored: 

1) While limitations have been identified in some species and traits our understanding of which phenotypic traits respond transgenerationally is limited.

2) Our understanding of the molecular mechanisms underpinning TA of specific traits is limited to tropical, warm-adapted fish. Further work on temperate (UK) and invertebrate species is needed to assess the generality of such responses. 

3) While the importance of TA in modifying responses to novel environments has been demonstrated, its effects and costs on species’ ability to respond to climate change over longer timescales remain unknown. 

Understanding the mechanisms and limitations of TA is essential, as TA may help buffer populations against the detrimental effects of climate change in the short-term. 

This project will address the following questions: 

  • Does parental exposure to detrimental, elevated temperatures affect offspring ability to maintain/improve performance under the same environment? 
  • What are the mechanisms underpinning the TA of different traits? 
  • What is the role of TA in the ability of populations to respond to climate change? 
  • Are there any costs associated with TA? 

Questions will be addressed by culturing amphipods over generations. A laboratory stock will be generated by breeding wild amphipods (F0) to produce the first experimental generation (F1). F1 adults will be placed in either control (15°C) or elevated temperature (20°C). These temperatures will be used because we have recently demonstrated that metabolic rate increases significantly upon exposure to 20°C and does not acclimate within a generation. However, it has the capacity to acclimate upon exposure over multiple generations in this species (Truebano, unpublished data). A range of behavioural and physiological traits will be explored within this studentship. F1 progeny will be reared under both temperatures, regardless of the parental treatment. This will be repeated in F2-F4 generations. 

For each generation and treatment, the following parameters will be measured: egg size, developmental timing, size at hatching, growth, age at maturity, number of hatchlings and hatchling survival per female, adult resting metabolic rate, adult lethal thermal limits and behavioural traits (mating, risk taking and avoidance behaviours). Gene expression analysis via RNA-Seq will be performed in amphipods across generations and treatments. Expression data will be correlated with physiological and behavioural traits, to determine the molecular mechanisms underpinning the acclimation of such traits. 

Population models will be developed using both matrix projection models and AgentBased models. The models will be parameterised using data from the experimental work, and sensitivity analyses will be performed before exploring longer-term climate-relevant population responses. Incorporating acclimation into these models is novel and will form the final component of the modelling work.


Munday, PL. 2014. Transgenerational acclimation of fishes to climate change andocean acidification. F1000 Prime Reports, 6:99. 

Truebano M, Tills O, Collins M, Clarke C, Shipsides E, Wheatley C and Spicer JI.2018. Short-term acclimation in adults does not predict offspring acclimationpotential to hypoxia. Scientific Reports, 8: 3174. 

Clark MS, Sommer U, Sihra JK, Thorne MAS, Morley SA, King M, Viant MR andPeck LS. 2016. Biodiversity in marine invertebrate responses to acute warmingrevealed by a comparative multi-omics approach. Global Change Biology 23: 318-330. 

Truebano M, Fenner P, Tills O, Rundle SD and Rezende E.L. 2018. Thermalstrategies vary with life history stage. Journal of Experimental Biology, 221:jeb171629. 

Veilleux, H.D., Ryu, T., Donelson, J.M., van Herwerden, L., Seridi, L., Ghosheh, Y.,Berumen, M.L., Leggat, W., Ravasi, T., Munday, P.L. (2015). Molecular processes oftransgenerational acclimation to a warming ocean. Nature Climate Change, 5: 1074-1078.