The evolutionary origin of teeth

This PhD project will investigate the origin of teeth by examining living and fossil jawless vertebrate teeth.

The studentship is part of the Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership, funded by NERC and starts October 2020.

Apply for this course

Pleas read the programme admissions statement for guidance on how to apply. Applications are processed via the University of Bristol's online application service.

Application deadline: 6 January 2020

Project Background

Teeth constitute at once a key innovation that underpinned the evolutionary and ecological diversification of jawed vertebrates - and a model system for understanding the general principles of organ development - so why do we know so little of their evolutionary origin?

The earliest jawed vertebrates already bore a toothy grin and so we must look to their jawless relatives for the answer. A number of lineages of extinct jawless vertebrates possessed toothlike structures but almost nothing is known of their composition, development and function. Living jawless vertebrates also possess poorly mineralised toothlets but nothing is known of their developmental genetics.

This project will elucidate the evolutionary origin of teeth through synchrotron and computed tomography of living and fossil jawless vertebrate teeth and tooth-like structures, computed fluid dynamic and finite element analysis of their function, and comparative transcriptomics of the teeth of living jawed and jawless relatives.

Project Aims and Methods

This project aims to elucidate the evolutionary origin of teeth in two different but entirely complementary ways:

  1. Through analysis of the structure, development and function of toothlike structures in fossil jawless vertebrates.
  2. Comparative analysis of gene expression in the teeth of living jawless and jawed vertebrates.

Combining both approaches will provide not only an integrative insight into the evolutionary origin of teeth, but will also serve as a fantastic means of obtaining an interdisciplinary training at the interface of the Earth and Life Sciences.

Nevertheless, we would still be delighted to hear form candidates who might prefer to focus on just the palaeobiological or transcriptomic dimensions of the proposed project.

1. New light shed on old bones:

You will use synchrotron and computed tomography to elucidate the developmental biology of teeth and toothlike structures in fossil vertebrates - for comparison to tooth and skeletal development in living vertebrates.

The resulting computer models will also serve as the basis for computed fluid dynamic and finite element analyses, to test hypotheses of their function of these tooth-like structures, which range from assisting filter or deposit feeding, to herbivory and predation.

2. Molecular insights into toothy origins:

In addition to studying tooth development in living jawless vertebrates using synchrotron and computed tomography, you will undertake a transcriptomic analysis of replacement teeth, focussing especially on genes that are implicated in tooth development in living vertebrates.

There remains scope to extend this work into expression analysis, to suit the interests of the student.

Collaborative Partner

Zerina Johanson is a world expert in vertebrate skeletal and dental evolution. The Natural History Museum houses an unparalleled collection of fossil jawless and primitive jawed vertebrates.

Candidate Requirements

You will have a good degree in Earth Science, Palaeobiology, Zoology, Biological Sciences, Genetics, or a related degree. A PhD is a training vehicle and so we do not anticipate that any candidate will have the full range of skills and knowledge required - this will be provided by the supervision team.


An upper second-class degree or higher (or international equivalent) in a discipline related to the PhD project for which you are applying. Applicants with additional relevant experience and/or a master's degree are encouraged to apply.

See international equivalent qualifications on the University of Bristol's International Office website.

English language requirements

If English is not your first language, you need to meet this profile level: Profile E
Further information about English language requirements and profile levels.

How to apply

Read the programme admissions statement for important information on entry requirements, the application process and supporting documents required.

Applications for the PhD are processed via the University of Bristol's online application service. 

The deadline for applications is 6 January 2020.

Any questions ?

You are encouraged to contact potential supervisors by email to discuss project-specific aspects of the proposed research at an early stage.

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Prof Philip Donoghue


University of Bristol

Main supervisor: Prof Philip Donoghue

Co-Supervisor: Dr Humberto Ferron

Co-Supervisor: Prof Davide Pisani

Co-Supervisor: Prof Emily Rayfield

The Natural History Museum

Co-supervisor: Dr Zerina Johanson


Donoghue PCJ, Ruecklin M. 2016. The ins and outs of the evolutionary origin of teeth. Evolution & Development 18:19-30

Smith MM, Johanson Z. 2003. Separate evolutionary origin of teeth from evidence in fossil jawed vertebrates. Science 299:1235-1236

Martin KJ, Rasch LJ, Cooper RL, Metscher BD, Johanson Z, Fraser GJ. 2016. Sox2+ progenitors in sharks link taste development with the evolution of regenerative teeth from denticles. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113:14769-14774

Rücklin M, Donoghue PC, Johanson Z, Trinajstic K, Marone F, Stampanoni M. 2012. Development of teeth and jaws in the earliest jawed vertebrates. Nature 491:748-751

Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships between the Natural History Museum and the Great Western Four, Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter universities.

Funded by