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EASTBIO Identifying, characterising and engineering plant cell wall degrading enzymes for biofuel production

   School of Biology

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  Dr T Gloster  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The effects of climate change have never been more apparent, which demands an urgent need for cleaner and greener processes for energy production. Bacteria and fungi are a rich source of carbohydrate processing enzymes that are capable of plant cell wall degradation. Exploitation of these enzymes is attractive given they have the capability of converting waste lignocellulosic biomass from plants into simpler sugars, which can be utilised in biofuel production. The aim of the project will be to establish enzyme cocktails that could be used in industrial processes to break down complex carbohydrates in the plant cell wall into simple sugars for fermentation.

We will focus on a number of plant pathogens from bacterial and fungal sources, with a particular interest on those found in thermophilic environments, meaning enzymes could operate at the high temperatures concomitant with physical pre-processing of plant biomass. Plant pathogens possess a high number and wide range of carbohydrate processing enzymes in order to penetrate the plant cell walls, which we can exploit in biocatalysis. Previous bioinformatics work has established a range of enzyme families that have potential for natural and engineered substrate diversity, which present a promising basis for further engineering. In addition, consideration of the genes encoding these enzymes in the genomic context have proved important in understanding how enzymes might function together in the degradation of plant biomass.

The genes encoding a number of these enzymes (primarily glycoside hydrolases, polysaccharide lyases and carbohydrate esterases) will be cloned and over-expressed in Escherichia coli, and their activity and specificity against a range of carbohydrate substrates investigated. In addition, the structures of the enzymes will be determined using X-ray crystallography or cryo-electron microscopy. These structural and functional insights will be used to identify candidates that could be taken forward for engineering, where a rational approach to designing mutants, including those where the natural sequence diversity of related enzymes can be incorporated, to explore the potential for enhanced activity and/or a wider substrate specificity. In addition, enzymes will be either co-expressed or mixed to determine their synergistic effects on plant cell wall degradation.

The project is multi-disciplinary and will provide a rich training ground for a PhD student. This will include exposure to molecular biology, protein biochemistry, enzymology, and structural biology. There is also the opportunity to explore bioinformatics approaches if interested. 


Application instructions can be found on the EASTBIO website-

1)     Download and complete the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion survey.

2)     Download and complete the EASTBIO Application Form.

3)     Submit an application to St Andrews University through the Online Application Portal

Your online application must include the following documents:

-         Completed EASTBIO application form

-         2 References (to be completed on the EASTBIO Reference Form, also found on the EASTBIO website)

-         Academic Qualifications

-         English Language Qualification (if applicable)

Unfortunately due to workload constraints, we cannot consider incomplete applications. Please make sure your application is complete by Monday 5th December 2022.


Queries on the project can be directed to the project supervisor.

Queries on the application process can be directed to Jess Fitzgerald at [Email Address Removed]

UKRI eligibility guidance: Terms and Conditions: View Website International/EU: View Website

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership.
This opportunity is open to UK and International students and provides funding to cover stipend at UKRI standard rate and UK level tuition fees. The University of St Andrews will cover the Home-International fee difference.

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