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EASTBIO Investigating the mechanisms of biological calcification using cryo-electron microscopy and super-resolution microscopy

School of Chemistry

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Dr F Nudelman , Prof C Farquharson , Dr Matthew Horrocks No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

The supervisory team of this project merges expertise in chemistry/biomineralisation (FN), cellular biology/biomineralisation (CF) and super-resolution microscopy (MH), which, in addition to training in scientific research and analytical methods, will ensure the acquisition of skills in several areas, including electron microscopy and crystallography, cellular biology techniques and super-resolution microscopy.

The use of inorganic materials to produce mineralised tissues such as bone and teeth is a fundamental process in Nature. Organisms from all 5 kingdoms are well known to produce a wide range of mineralised structures that are optimally adapted for essential biological functions including mechanical support, protection and navigation. Among the many mineralising organisms found in nature, coccolithophores are one of the most interesting. These organisms are marine unicellular algae that produce scales of calcium carbonate crystals called coccoliths, that form an exoskeleton around the cells [1]. Each scale is made of nano-crystals of calcite assembled into a complex disk-like structure, constituting an astonishing example of the ability of organisms to precisely control the nucleation, growth and shape of nano-crystalline building blocks, and further orchestrate their assembly into complex structures [1]. Coccolithiophores are also fascinating in that the shape of the coccoliths produced are genus-specific, which demonstrates that the mineral patterns they produce are genetically controlled. Finally, biomineralisation by coccolithophores are of high importance to the environment and Earth’s biogeochemical cycle. They produce ca. 1026 coccoliths/year and are responsible for ca. 50% of deep sea carbon burial, forming the largest geological sink of carbon from the ocean/atmosphere reservoir [2]. The significance of coccolithophore biomineralisation to our environment, coupled with their abundance in our oceans, highlight the need to understand the mechanism of calcification in these organisms and how that will respond to anthropogenic change, including ocean acidification. To date, however, we still don’t know how coccolithophores produce such distinctive and sophisticated mineral patterns.

The goals of this research are to elucidate the mechanisms by which coccolithophores control the nucleation and the assembly of nano-crystals of calcite to generate highly complex scales. For this, we will focus on determining the structure and surface chemistry of the base plates – the substrates that promote the nucleation of calcite crystals and determine their organisation into a complex scale [3]. We will use a combination of cryo-transmission electron microscopy and tomography [4] and super-resolution microscopy to identify the key features that are responsible for promoting the nucleation of nano-crystals of calcium carbonate and their assembly, ultimately controlling the overall coccolith shape.

Application Process:
To apply for an EASTBIO PhD studentship, follow the instructions below:
1) Check FindaPhD for our available projects and contact potential supervisors before you apply. Please note that the majority of our projects will go live in the w/b 4 November.

2) After you have discussed the projects of interest to you with the project supervisors, download and complete our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion survey and then fill in the EASTBIO Application Form and submit to each of your proposed projects as per the instructions in the project adverts.

3) Send the EASTBIO Reference Form to your two academic/professional referees, and ask them to submit as specified on the project adverts.

4) If you are nominated by the supervisor(s) of the EASTBIO PhD project you wish to apply for, they will provide a Supervisor Support Statement.

5) We anticipate that our first set of interviews will be in the week commencing 10th February 2020 with awards made the following week.

If you have further queries about the application/recruitment process please email EastBio.
Please ask your referees to submit your references directly to Dr Fabio Nudelman [Email Address Removed]

The School of Chemistry holds a Silver Athena SWAN award in recognition of our commitment to advance gender equality in higher education. The University is a member of the Race Equality Charter and is a Stonewall Scotland Diversity Champion, actively promoting LGBT equality. The University has a range of initiatives to support a family friendly working environment. See our University Initiatives website for further information. University Initiatives website:

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership This opportunity is only open to UK nationals (or EU students who have been resident in the UK for 3+ years immediately prior to the programme start date) due to restrictions imposed by the funding body.


1. Marzec, B. et al., Three-dimensional architecture and surface functionality of coccolith base plates. J. Struct. Biol., (2019)
2. Monteiro, F. M. et al. Why marine phytoplankton calcify. Science Adv. 2, e1501822 (2016).
3. Gal, A. et al. Macromolecular recognition directs calcium ions to coccolith mineralization sites. Science 353, 590 (2016).
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