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How do bacteria use ‘grappling hooks’ to move within biofilms?

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  • Full or part time
    Dr William Durham
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About This PhD Project

Project Description

Most bacteria live in surface-attached communities called biofilms. These structures protect cells from a wide variety of threats, including the antibiotics that doctors use to treat bacterial infections. While classically the cells within biofilms were considered to live sluggish, static lives, we now know that bacteria can use tiny ‘grappling hooks’ called pili to move within biofilms. Our group recently discovered that the movement of cells within biofilms is not random, but rather individuals can actively direct their movement to more favourable chemical environments (Oliveira, Foster & Durham, PNAS, 113, 2016). While this process, known as chemotaxis, has been intensively studied in free swimming bacteria, we know very little about the biological and physical mechanisms that bacteria use to navigate through biofilms.

This project will develop new experimental and theoretical approaches to resolve how bacteria generate pili-based chemotaxis within biofilms. We are especially interested in understanding mechanisms that underlie the highly coordinated, collective behaviour that is routinely observed when cells are densely packed together. Taken together, this project might lead to new ways to disrupt dangerous bacterial infections in patients or to rationally engineer biofilms in biotechnological applications.

This project will provide exposure to a wide variety of tools, including microfluidic experiments, sophisticated microscopic imaging, code/algorithm development, molecular biology, and mathematical modelling, however, the particulars of the project will be tailored to the student’s interests. Our current group is composed of biologists, mathematicians, physicists, and engineers – we welcome applications from potential students that are interested in highly interdisciplinary research. No prior experience with microbiology is required.

Science Graduate School:
As a PhD student in one of the science departments at the University of Sheffield, you’ll be part of the Science Graduate School – a community of postgraduate researchers working across biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and psychology. You’ll get access to training opportunities designed to support your career development by helping you gain professional skills that are essential in all areas of science. You’ll be able to learn how to recognise good research and research behaviour, improve your communication abilities and experience technologies that are used in academia, industry and many related careers. Visit to learn more.

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