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Assessing the impact of dietary sugar analogues on human gut and to inform sustainable plant breeding for health

   School of Medicine, Medical Sciences & Nutrition

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  Dr Madalina Neacsu, Dr S Duncan, Prof Wendy Russell, Dr Kelly Houston  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The Rowett Institute has an international reputation for teaching and research in human nutrition and food science. As part of its funding through the Scottish government we are advertising a number of high-profile PhD studentships in nutrition, food science, microbiology and analytical chemistry.

The food system must intensify and simultaneously diversify to meet growing population needs while supporting in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, meeting dietary guidelines and promoting health. This implies future increase demand for plants as source of nutrients.

Phytic acid, a dihydrogenphosphate ester of inositol (sugar analogues), represents 50–85% of the total phosphorus content in plants and 1–5% of total weight. High protein-rich crops such as buckwheat are also a rich source of other sugar analogues such as iminosugars. The myo-inositol derivative of phytic acid can be released in the intestine by the activity of enzymatic phytases. Inositol forms partly derive from bacterial phytases, but only scarce data are available on microbiota modulation. Preliminary work in vitro and in animal studies described that dietary phytic acid increased production of microbial short chain fatty acids with parallel changes in microbiota composition. This suggests that different carbohydrate content as well as sugar analogue intake, has a metabolic role in concert with the gut microbiota1,2. d-Fagomine (an iminosugar) inhibited the adhesion of Enterobacteriaceae to intestinal mucosa in pre-clinical studies3.

This study will address knowledge gaps by evaluating the impact of high protein and fibre food crops rich in sugar analogues (inositols and inimosugars) in terms of their metabolism/further cellular uptake and role in the prevention of colonic inflammation. This by studying unexploited/unknown aspects related to sugar analogues impact on gut health, unleashing novel health benefits attributed to the consumption of these crops.

Delivering a comprehensive analysis of the content of sugar analogues in important food crops, such as barley, buckwheat and hemp, this project will inform future plant breeding strategies for both the food and drink industry (by selecting for phytate content).

The role of the human microbiota in metabolising these compounds will be assessed (in vitro) in terms of modulating the microbial composition and overall gut health (e.g., inflammation). The project will identify bacteria which possess phytase activity and utilise the sugar analogues as a source of energy in vitro (single and mixed culture batch experiments) and in vivo (dietary studies collecting faecal samples following the consumption of crops such as buckwheat, barley and hemp by human volunteers) and the measurement of the microbial metabolites.

In this truly interdisciplinary project, the student will acquire knowledge, skills and expertise on natural product chemistry/metabolism, microbiology, human nutrition and plant breeding. Specifically, extraction/analysis of plant metabolites (GCMS and LCMS techniques); single/mixed microbiota incubations, molecular biology techniques; cell culture; bio-informatics; GWAS and aspects of human dietary intervention studies.

This is a collaborative study involving scientists from the Rowett Institute, the James Hutton Institute and wider partners across the food supply chain.

Essential background of student:

Students should preferably have a first degree (First class or 2.1) or an MSc in a Biological Science, Nutrition or Natural Products Chemistry or related subjects and preferably have good or at least some knowledge of Microbiology and Analytical Chemistry.

Informal enquiries would be welcomed for a discussion, Please contact the lead supervisor, Dr Madalina Neacsu ([Email Address Removed]) for more information.


This project will be based within the Rowett Institute, part of the School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition, at the University of Aberdeen. The Rowett Institute is located on the Foresterhill Health Campus, one of the largest clinical complexes in Europe, which also includes the Institute of Applied Health Sciences, a large teaching hospital and the the Institute of Medical Sciences (IMS).  



International applicants are eligible to apply for this studentship but will have to find additional funding to cover the difference between overseas and home fees (approximately £17,000 per annum)

  • Formal applications can be completed online: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/pgap/login.php
  • You should apply for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Medical Sciences to ensure your application is passed to the correct team
  • Please clearly note the name of the supervisor and exact project title on the application form. If you do not mention the project title and the supervisor on your application it will not be considered for the studentship.
  • General application enquiries can be made to [Email Address Removed]

Funding Notes

Project funded through the Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division (RESAS) of the Scottish Government.
Funding covers tuition fees at the UK/Home rate, bench fees, and a stipend at the UKRI rate.
This is a four-year project and the expected start date is October 2022.
Full funding is available to UK candidates only. International candidates can apply for this studentship but will have to find additional funding to cover the difference between overseas and home fees (approximately £17,000 per annum).


1. Bui TPM et al. (2021) Conversion of dietary inositol into propionate and acetate by commensal Anaerostipes associates with host health. Nature Comm 12, 4798.
2. Y. Okazaki, T. Katayama (2014) Dietary phytic acid modulates characteristics of the colonic luminal environment and reduces serum levels of proinflammatory cytokines in rats fed a high-fat diet. Nutr Res, 34, 1085-1091
3. Gomez L et al (2012) D-Fagomine lowers postprandial blood glucose and modulates bacterial adhesion. Br J Nutr. 107, 1739-46.
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