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Russell Hall

PhD Student

Evolution of C4 Photosynthesis in Grasses

This NERC CASE PhD studentship is in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, UK, with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew as CASE partner.  It is supervised by Colin Osborne and Rob Freckleton (University of Sheffield), David Simpson (Kew), and Pascal-Antoine Christin (University of Sheffield).

The project investigates how ecological and functional diversity has evolved in the “Alloteropsis-forest shade clade” of grasses, an ecologically diverse lineage of circa 150 extant species. These include the world’s most productive plant and its most important weeds, two to four evolutionary transitions between the C3 and C4 photosynthetic pathways, and the only species with C3 and C4 subspecies.  The C4 pathway is a turbo-charger for photosynthesis that has evolved many times. What sequence of morphological changes and habitat transitions led to C4 evolution in grasses?  And was the evolution of C4 photosynthesis associated with a shift in net diversification and the occupation of new niche space?  The project is highly relevant to the current global research effort to bioengineer the C4 photosynthetic pathway in rice, which aims to boost yield in this important crop. More generally, the PhD project also aims to advance our fundamental understanding of trait evolution in the grasses.

The objectives of the project are:

  1. To sequence DNA for all of the species in the clade, and use these data to construct the first complete species-level phylogeny for any grass lineage of this size;
  2. To acquire information on morphological and functional plant traits, ecological niche characteristics (e.g. climate, fire regime, habitat), and geographical range for each species, and map these onto the phylogeny;
  3. To reconstruct the evolutionary history of each of these characters, and to explore the relationships between morphological and functional trait evolution, the occupation of new ecological niche space, shifts in geographical range, and changes in the net diversification rate.

Career History

2010 – present Ph.D. in Plant Science, University of Sheffield
2008 – 2009 Student placement (Palm Section), Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
2006 – 2010 B.Sc. (Hons) in Botany, University of Reading
2005 – 2006 HNC in Horticulture with Plantsmanship, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh


Professor Colin P. Osborne (1st Supervisor), Department of Animal & Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield.

Professor Rob P. Freckleton (2nd Supervisor), Director of Research & Innovation for Science, Department of Animal & Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield.

Dr Dave Simpson (CASE Partner Supervisor), Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Dr Pascal-Antoine Christin (Co-advisor), Department of Animal & Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield.

Professor Richard C. Leegood (Project Supporter), Department of Animal & Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield.


Dr Maria S. Vorontsova, Royal Botanic Gardens, KewGrasses of Madagascar.

Dr Guillaume BesnardCNRS-UPS, Toulouse.



In order to obtain plant material for DNA extraction to construct a species-level phylogeny I planned and lead a collecting expedition to Madagascar in the Autumn of 2011. This was in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew with support from Kew’s Madagascar Conservation Centre (KMCC) team in Antananarivo. In addition to myself the expedition team consisted of Dr Maria Vorontsova of Kew and Dr Guillaume Besnard of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse.

Collections were made in the National Parks of Mantadia, Marojejy, Andringitra and Andohahela, the Protected Area of Daraina and along the route between the parks covering a distance of 3782 miles (6088 km) by road and (mainly) dirt tracks. The expedition yielded collections of 141 different species over a period of five weeks.

The photograph on the right taken by Dr Vorontsova (Kew) shows the expedition collecting in the montane rainforest of Marojejy National Park. Left-right: Dr Guillaume Besnard (CRNS Toulouse), Dr Franck Rakotonasolo (KMCC & Parc Botanique et Zoologique de Tsimbazaza), Russell Hall (University of Sheffield) and Dr Mijoro Rakotoarinivo (Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre).

Click here for an account of the expedition.


Belize CPO

I was lucky enough to win a place on the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) Fieldwork Skills in the Tropics course, which took place during January 2015 in Belize earning me the RBGE Certificate in Field Botany and was funded by NERC. This course covered the identification of over 75 families of vascular plants from mainly vegetative characters, together with surveying techniques and GIS interpretation skills.

During the course we were resident at the Las Cuevas Research Station in the Chiquibul National Park, Belize Botanic Gardens, and the Hill Bank Field Station in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area.

The above photograph taken by Chris Jeffree (RBGE) during field surveying in the evergreen, lowland rainforest of Chiquibul National Park demonstrates a forest environment dominated by a palm understory. Left-right: Dr Tiina Särkinen (RBGE), Nicholas Girkin (University of Nottingham), Lok Yin Edgar Wong (RBGE), Victoria Castro Cabrera (RBGE).


Marjorie R. Lundgren, Guillaume Besnard, Bradley S. Ripley, Caroline E.R. Lehmann, David S. Chatelet, Ralf G. Kynast, Mary Namaganda, Maria S. Vorontsova, Russell C. Hall, John Elia, Colin P. Osborne & Pascal-Antoine Christin. Photosynthetic innovation broadens the niche within a single species. Ecology Letters, August 2015 DOI: 10.1111/ele.12484




NERC CASE PhD Studentship with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as the CASE Partner.