Antarctic Subglacial Lake Microbiology (ref: SF22/HLS/APP/PEARCE)

   Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

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  Prof David Pearce  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Antarctic subglacial lakes are one of the few remaining unexplored environments on Earth. Yet they have the potential to be one of the most extreme environments and also one of the least accessible, with combined stresses of high pressure, low temperature, permanent darkness, low nutrient content and variable oxygen concentrations. Preliminary analysis of sediment and ice samples suggests a very dilute environment for microbial life, so where present, there will be probably very low numbers of viable organisms. Through the analysis of analogues and proxies, we are just beginning to understand what life might be like in these remarkable ecosystems. Indeed, since the first discovery of Antarctic subglacial aquatic ecosystems, there has been a rapid expansion in our understanding of these environments, in terms of their number, diversity and interconnectivity. More importantly, technological and logistical capabilities have now, for the first time, made deep Antarctic subglacial lake access both feasible and scientifically compelling in recent years.

One of the key goals of Antarctic subglacial lake exploration has been to measure, analyse and understand life in these extreme environments. Microbiological activity and function have already been shown to be present in such systems, albeit at the margins of the ice sheet. This might be expected, as microorganisms are known to withstand the range of selection pressures and indeed, have been predicted to exist within such deep subglacial environments. Indeed, microbes have been shown to exist in analogous extreme environments, such as deep-sea sediments, to display a huge diversity, to have the ability to exist in the absence of light and to remain dormant in isolation for hundreds of thousands to millions of years.

In this study, we will conduct a thorough microbiological investigation of Antarctic subglacial sediments retrieved for the first time from over 2 km below the Antarctic ice surface and address a range of questions, such as can these environments sustain life, and if present, what type of organisms, what niche might they occupy and how do they overcome intense and often adverse selection pressures? What can any organisms found tell us about the distribution and evolution of microbial life? Is any potential historical climate change record locked within the sediments, how do Antarctic subglacial lakes interact with and influence the rest of the biosphere and the overlaying ice, do they influence global biogeochemical cycles, are the ecosystems stable and how do they function?

During the course of this investigation the candidate will acquire transferrable research skills in: Astrobiology, Biotechnology, Engineering, Fieldwork, Cleanliness and Sterility, Microbiology, Molecular biology, Detection Limits, Public Understanding of Science and Science Communication.

It is expected that the project will involve significant Polar Fieldwork

Eligibility and How to Apply:

Please note eligibility requirement:

•      Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non- UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above)

•      Appropriate IELTS score, if required

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see


Please note: All applications must include a covering letter (up to 1000 words maximum) including why you are interested in this PhD, a summary of the relevant experience you can bring to this project and of your understanding of this subject area with relevant references (beyond the information already provided in the advert). Applications that do not include the advert reference (e.g. SF22/…) will not be considered.


Deadline for applications: Ongoing

Start Date: 1st October and 1st March are the standard cohort start dates each year.

Northumbria University is committed to creating an inclusive culture where we take pride in, and value, the diversity of our doctoral students. We encourage and welcome applications from all members of the community. The University hold a bronze Athena Swan award in recognition of our commitment to advancing gender equality, we are a Disability Confident Employer, a member of the Race Equality Charter and are participating in the Stonewall Diversity Champion Programme. We also hold the HR Excellence in Research award for implementing the concordat supporting the career development of researchers.

Informal enquiries to Prof David Pearce ([Email Address Removed])

Biological Sciences (4) Environmental Sciences (13) Geography (17)

Funding Notes

This project is fully self-funded and available to applicants worldwide. Tuition fees will depend on the running cost of the individual project, in line with University fee bands found at The fee will be discussed and agreed at interview stage.
Please note: to be classed as a Home student, candidates must meet the following criteria:
Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
have settled status, or
have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or
have indefinite leave to remain or enter.
If a candidate does not meet the criteria above, they would be classed as an International student.


Pearce DA, et al. (2016) Microbiology: lessons from a first attempt at Lake Ellsworth. Phil. Trans. R.Soc. A 374: 20140291.
Makinson K, et al. (2016). Clean subglacial access: prospects for future deep hot-water drilling. Phil. Trans. R.Soc. A DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2014.0304
Hodgson DA et al. (2016). Technologies for retrieving sediment cores in Antarctic subglacial settings. Phil. Trans. R.Soc. A DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2015.0056
Dickinson I et al. (2016). Extremophiles in an Antarctic marine ecosystem. Microorganisms 2016, 4(1), 8; doi:10.3390/microorganisms4010008
Hodson, A et al. (2015). Cryospheric Ecosystems: a synthesis of snowpack and glacial research. Environmental Research Letters. 10 (11) p 110201 ISSN 1748-9326 Article reference: ERL-101905.
Pearce, DA et al. (2013). Microbiology of a former subglacial lake sediment in Antarctica. Preliminary analysis of life within a former subglacial lake sediment in Antarctica. Diversity, 5 (3). 680-702. 10.3390/d5030680.
Pearce, DA (2012) Subglacial lakes. In: Life at extremes: environments, organisms and strategies for survival. CABInternational, pp. 122-137. ISBN 9781845938147
Siegert, M, et al. (2012) Clean access, measurement and sampling of Antarctic subglacial lake environments. Reviews of Geophysics, 50. RG1003. ISSN 0096-1043
Ross, N et al. (2011) Ellsworth Subglacial Lake, West Antarctica: A review of its history and recent field campaigns. In: Antarctic Subglacial Aquatic Environments. Geophysical Monograph Series, 192 . American Geophysical Union, Washington, DC., pp. 221-233. ISBN 978-0-87590-482-5
Pearce, DA (2009) Antarctic subglacial lake exploration: a new frontier in microbial ecology. The ISME Journal, 3 (8). pp. 877-880. ISSN 1751-7362
Siegert, M et al. (2007) Exploration of Ellsworth Subglacial Lake: A concept paper on the development, organisation and execution of an experiment to explore, measure and sample the environment of a West Antarctic subglacial lake - The Lake Ellsworth consortium. Reviews in Environmental Science and Biotechnology, 6 (1-3). pp. 161-179. ISSN 1569 1705
Charles C.S. et al. (2011). Subglacial Environments and the Search for Life Beyond the Earth. In: Antarctic Subglacial Aquatic Environments. Geophysical Monograph Series, 192. Book Editor(s): Martin J. Siegert, Mahlon C. Kennicutt II. American Geophysical Union, Washington, DC., pp. 159-186.

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