Fluorescent polymer sensors for bacteria detection : investigating ecosystem health in a changing climate

   Department of Chemistry

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  Dr Amanda Pearce, Dr S Butler  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This PhD project is a part of the Vice-Chancellor's Scholarship looking to support the climate change and net zero agenda. This opportunity forms a suite of five projects focusing on ecosystem health in a changing climate - the application of advanced multi-sensing systems.

The impact that climate change is having on the world’s ecosystems affects every one of us. Our capacity to grow food, to maintain clean and safe water supplies, and our ability to do this in a way that is sustainable, is dependent upon us understanding how soil and water are affected by our changing weather. The EcoSENSE research cluster (involving 5 PhD studentships) will develop new sensors for the accurate, sensitive and real-time monitoring of the health of water and soil systems. We will achieve this through an ambitious and exciting series of interconnected projects combining expertise in Materials Science, Chemistry, Geography and Computer Science, guided by input from key Industrial partners including MAST group Ltd and Severn Trent.

The aim of this PhD project is to develop fluorescent polymer sensors for detecting bacterial pathogens in drinking water sources. You will synthesise a diverse range of fluorescent metal-organic complexes and polymer particles with varied chemistries, and learn microbiological techniques for studying their binding to different bacteria species. This interdisciplinary project is part of a larger research cluster EcoSENSE, which aims to develop advanced multi-sensing systems to monitor ecosystem health in a changing climate.

Extreme weather events and increased precipitation are causing contamination of drinking water sources. Pathogens already present within soils are transported through rain, meaning increased rainfall makes it more likely for them to spread. Conversely, drought causes common drinking water sources to dry up meaning less-safe sources need to be accessed. Both of these situations highlight the urgent need to develop portable and accurate sensors for detecting bacterial contamination in water reservoirs.

Gram-negative bacteria such as Legionella pneumophila, Salmonella, and Escherichia Coli are among the current contaminants of concern, causing a variety of illnesses in humans from Legionnaires’ disease through to gastroenteritis. Gram-negative bacteria are characterised by their external lipopolysaccharide (LPS) membranes, which consist of three domains: a glycan polysaccharide outer, a core oligosaccharide layer and internal lipids. Previously, researchers have shown that selective attachment of small molecules/polymers to bacteria surfaces can occur through boronic ester formation, on account of the abundance of diols within the external polysaccharide layer.

In this project, the student will develop a quantitative fluorescent sensor able to selectively bind to LPS in the outer membranes of gram-negative bacteria. The ligand chemistries in the sensor complexes will be tuned to achieve varied binding characteristics to different bacterial species on account of their varied LPS compositions. The sensors will further be incorporated into polymers to improve their targeting specificity and robustness in application. The change in fluorescence emission behaviours in response to binding will be studied, ultimately leading to sensors which can report on the type and abundance of bacteria within water samples. In collaboration with the EcoSENSE cluster, we will encapsulate these into hydrogels using our patented technology, thereby delivering new tools with real environmental and industrial applications.

The EcoSENSE research cluster will develop a new class of advanced sensing materials for the continuous analysis of the health of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. This is key for understanding how these critical ecosystem’s function and will allowing us to respond to the current drivers of environmental change.

This highly interdisciplinary project will be a collaboration between the Chemistry and Materials departments, supervised by Dr Amanda Pearce, Dr Stephen Butler and Dr Elisa Mele. The student will have the opportunity to learn organic and polymer synthesis, materials characterisation, and microbiological experimentation, therefore gaining a truly multidisciplinary training in cutting-edge environmental and climate change science.

Widening participation

EcoSENSE are committed to widening the diversity of our PhD student cohorts. We aim to guarantee interviews for Home-award-eligible students in certain groups or areas of the UK who are under represented in higher education.

More details are in the EcoSENSE application form which you can find in the how to apply section below.


Primary Supervisors: Amanda Pearce & Helen Willcock

Secondary Supervisors: Stephen Butler & Elisa Mele

Entry requirements for United Kingdom

Applicants should have, or expect to achieve, at least a 2:1 Honours degree in a STEM discipline (Chemistry, Materials, Chemical Engineering, Pharmacy, or any other relevant STEM subjects).

We also expect the applicants to have a demonstrable interest in research, innovation, and interdisciplinary research. It is desirable for the successful applicant to demonstrate experience, knowledge, and/or interest of relevance to the project, e.g., basic chemistry, polymeric materials, microbiology, and teamworking skills.

English language requirements

Applicants must meet the minimum English language requirements. Further details are available on the International website.

How to apply

As part of our aim to guarantee interviews for home-awarded-eligible students in certain groups or areas of the UK who are under-represented in higher education, we require you to complete and submit the EcoSENSE Studentship Application Form 2023 in addition to the general application process highlighted below.

All applications should be made online. Under programme name, select Chemistry. Please quote the advertised reference number: EcoSENSE 4 in your application.

To avoid delays in processing your application, please ensure that you submit the minimum supporting documents.

Apply now

Biological Sciences (4) Chemistry (6) Engineering (12) Materials Science (24) Medicine (26)

Funding Notes

Studentship is for three years full time or six years part time and provides a tax-free stipend of £17,668 per annum (pro rata for the part time) for the duration of the studentship plus tuition fees. UK and international applicants are both eligible for this award. Please note that the studentship will be awarded on a competitive basis to applicants who have applied to this project.

Where will I study?