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BBSRC White Rose DTP Studentship - Combining synthetic and evolutionary biology to develop novel ‘Infectious inoculants’ for agricultural sustainability

   School of Biosciences

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  Dr E Harrison, Dr Ian Lidbury, Dr J Hall  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Agriculture is in crisis. We rely on synthetic fertilisers but cannot afford their rising economic and environmental costs, and in the case of phosphorus, our reserves are running out. Novel strategies are urgently needed to reduce our reliance on synthetic fertilisers, whilst ensuring food security.

Microbial inoculants - bacterial/fungal strains with beneficial functions added to soil - hold excellent promise. However, inoculant efficacy is low due to competition with locally-adapted microbes. A radical approach is to introduce beneficial functions into locally-adapted microbial communities through horizontal gene transfer on plasmids - a form of ‘natural bioengineering’.

Phosphorus availability is a key target. We recently identified a unique enzyme (PafA) in soil bacteria that efficiently regenerates plant-available inorganic phosphate by hydrolysing organic phosphorus complexes.

In this project we will….

  1. Develop ‘phosphate-solubilising plasmids’ (PSPs) designed to spread this function into key crop-associated microbes. 
  2. Investigate the functional and fitness consequences of PSPs in crop-associated microbes. 
  3. Track the spread of PSPs into crop-associated microbes and quantify the effect on microbiome composition and function in cropping systems.

This project will combine genetics, synthetic and evolutionary biology, fluorescence microscopy, metagenomics, NMR spectroscopy and greenhouse experiments. The goal is to develop novel approaches for reducing agriculture’s reliance on chemical fertilisers. 

The BBSRC WR DTP and the University of Sheffield are committed to recruiting future scientists regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or career pathway to date. We understand that commitment and excellence can be shown in many ways and we have built our recruitment process to reflect this. We welcome applicants from all backgrounds, particularly those underrepresented in science, who have curiosity, creativity and a drive to learn new skills.

Note: Relocation costs for international students to the UK (visa, insurance, NHS fees, flights, etc) will be the responsibility of the student 

Entry Requirements: Students with, or expecting to gain, at least an upper second class honours degree, or equivalent, are invited to apply. The interdisciplinary nature of this programme means that we welcome applications from students with backgrounds in any biological, chemical, and/or physical science, or students with mathematical backgrounds who are interested in using their skills in addressing biological questions. 


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Programme: PhD in Mechanistic Biology (4 years)

Start Date: 1st October 2023

Shortlisted candidates will be interviewed mid February 2023

Funding Notes

This project is part of the BBSRC White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership in Mechanistic Biology. Appointed candidates will be fully-funded for 4 years. The funding includes:
• Tax-free annual UKRI stipend (£17,668 for 2022 starts)
• UK tuition fees (£4,596 for 2022)
• Research support and training grant (RSTG)
We aim to support the most outstanding applicants from outside the UK and are able to offer a limited number of bursaries that will enable full studentships to be awarded to international applicants. These full studentships will only be awarded to exceptional quality candidates, due to the competitive nature of this scheme

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