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Investigating cross talk between pathogenic Vibrio and phytoplankton, and implications for human health under climate change. NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Biosciences.

   College of Life and Environmental Sciences

  Dr Mahasweta Saha,  Monday, January 10, 2022  Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Exeter United Kingdom Climate Science Ecology Marine Biology Microbiology

About the Project

Project Background:

Communication amongst humans allows us to live together in societies. Breakdowns in communication can lead to conflicts and a breakdown of society's structures. However, communication is not limited to humans. Chemical cues and signals, collectively called infochemicals, are widely used by organisms living on land and sea to communicate between individuals within a species or between different species. For example, albatrosses use a simple chemical cue called DMS (dimethyl sulphide) to track highly productive areas where they forage on zooplankton, squid, fish, and even other birds! We know from terrestrial ecosystems that climate change stressors such as warming can alter the production and composition of infochemicals with profound negative effects on natural ecosystems. Although this chemical communication currently works well in the ocean, we do not know how marine organisms will communicate under climate change!

Phytoplankton, the producers of 50% oxygen we breathe, also use infochemicals to ‘talk’ to other organisms like microbes, including pathogens such as Vibrio which can be either deterred or attracted towards phytoplankton. Several Vibrio species are human pathogens known to cause waterborne diseases, e.g. Vibrio cholerae responsible for cholera. Climate change is predicted to escalate this problem, posing increased threat to human health.

In this project you will conduct a novel set of experiments underpinning phytoplankton-Vibrio relationships mediated by infochemicals, and explore how climate change induced stressors such as temperature, salinity and precipitation might change phytoplankton-Vibrio interactions. Results will enable us to understand dynamics of phytoplankton-pathogenic marine bacteria interaction, in particular microbes such as Vibrios that represent an emerging disease threat in Europe and other higher latitudes, driven by climate change.

Project Aims and Methods:

The chemically enriched phycosphere, the microscale mucous region enveloping phytoplankton cells, represents the marketplace where interactions between algae and other organisms are controlled by exuded chemicals. In this PhD, you will undertake pioneering research to establish how the association of Vibrio with phytoplankton are controlled by infochemicals. You will work at the interface of ecology, microbiology, chemistry, physiology and climate change research investigating novel questions such as (i) which infochemicals enable positive and negative ‘cross-talk’ of phytoplankton with selected Vibrio species; (ii) how the entire chemical landscape appears during such associations; and (iii) how such association changes in response to climate-change-induced stressors.

You will work in a highly interdisciplinary international team (UK and Germany) and use different advanced techniques to isolate anti- and pro-Vibrio compounds from phytoplankton cultures and will be trained to use different spectroscopy methods. You will collaborate with Georg Pohnert (Max Plank Institute of Chemical Ecology, Germany) to use latest ‘omics’ techniques such as untargeted whole cell and single cell metabolomics. You will also perform laboratory incubations to quantify the effect of stressors such as mean temperature rise on the Vibrio-phytoplankton association. You will be allowed freedom and flexibility to modify the project design and direction, within the broad scope of the project’s aims.

Candidate requirements:

This project would suit a curious, highly motivated, pro-active, and self-reliant student with a biology/chemical background with interests in marine chemical, phytoplankton and microbial ecology. You should have at least a 2:1 Bachelor degree in a marine/environmental science.

Project partners:

Project will be primarily based at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML). PML will offer you the experience of working in a world-leading marine research laboratory and access to facilities such as climate-controlled rooms, suite of analytical and microbiology facilities and equipment essential for the project. UoE is ranked in the top 10 in the UK and in the top 200 worldwide, and is a member of the UK’s Russell Group of leading research-intensive universities. The Centre for Geography and Environmental Science located in Penryn, Cornwall, focuses on innovative teaching and cutting-edge research on humans’ impact on the natural world.

You will have access to research facilities, opportunities to attend academic departmental seminars, and to network with other academics and PhD students in the department. As both the UK national reference laboratory and the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) reference laboratory for shellfish sanitation, CEFAS encompasses a wealth of experience in pathogenic marine Vibrio research.


You will develop advanced research skills plus transferable skills and will be mentored by a committed team of supervisors to develop yourself into a future research leader supporting a future career in academic research/teaching or the biotech industry. You will collaborate with a dynamic team of scientists at PML, UoE and CEFAS, as well as collaborate with Max Plank Institute of Chemical Ecology (Germany), the topmost chemical ecology research institute in the world.

Prospective applicants:

For information about the application process please contact the Admissions team via .


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals. For further details please see the NERC GW4+ website.

Those not meeting the nationality and residency requirements to be treated as a ‘home’ student may apply for a limited number of full studentships for international students. Although international students are usually charged a higher tuition fee rate than ‘home’ students, those international students offered a NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership full studentship starting in 2022 will only be charged the ‘home’ tuition fee rate. 

How to apply

In order to formally apply for the PhD Project you will need to go to the following web page.

The closing date for applications is 1600 hours GMT on Friday 10th January 2022.

Interviews will be held between 28th February and 4th March 2022.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone: 0300 555 60 60 (UK callers) or +44 (0) 1392 723044 (EU/International callers). Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor

Funding Notes

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:
An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,609 p.a. for 2021/22) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates;
Payment of university tuition fees;
A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.


Saha, M. et al. Front. Ecol. Environ. 1–8 (2019). doi:10.1002/fee.2113
Seymour, J. R., et al. Nature Microbiology (2017). doi:10.1038/nmicrobiol.2017.65

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