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Investigating the biogenesis and organisation of photosynthetic membranes using cryo-electron tomography

  • Full or part time
    Dr M Johnson
    Dr A Hitchcock
    Dr Alistair Siebert
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, March 09, 2020
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Photosynthesis forms the basis of global food chains and provides the oxygen and energy that sustains the biosphere and human civilisation. Every year billions of tonnes of chlorophyll and carotenoid molecules are synthesised and incorporated into light harvesting and reaction centre complexes by plants, algae and photosynthetic bacteria. These photosynthetic machines reside in specialised membranes and cooperate to capture solar energy and convert it into stable charge separations, which are transformed into chemical energy for biomass production. Yet despite their importance, little is known about how photosynthetic membrane systems are assembled from the component proteins, pigments and lipids that comprise them. A detailed understanding of membrane biogenesis is crucial for synthetic biology projects that aim to modify photosynthesis to improve its efficiency for increased food and biofuel production to sustain the growing world population.

Recent technological breakthroughs in cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET) are starting to reveal the interior architecture of cells at molecular resolution. We aim to trigger the biogenesis process and use this technique to generate a ‘time-lapse movie’ of membrane assembly. The cellular level view provided by cryo-ET will be combined with single-particle cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to elucidate high-resolution structures of specific photosynthetic complexes critical to membrane biogenesis and function.

This PhD programme offers interdisciplinary training at two world-class research facilities, the Diamond Light Source (Diamond, Oxfordshire) and the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Sheffield (UoS). High resolution cryo-ET and cryo-EM and associated data analysis will be undertaken at Diamond, and biochemical and biophysical techniques including bacterial/plant growth, protein purification, microscopy, spectroscopy and mass spectrometry will be performed in the molecular photosynthesis research laboratories at UoS. The successful candidate will spend time at both institutes, interacting with biochemists, physiologists, geneticists, biophysicists and engineers under the close co-supervision of experts in structural biology and photosynthesis.

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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.

Funding Notes

A 4 year PhD studentship is available. The studentship comes with full tuition fees and maintenance for 4 years and is available to UK/EU students. Stipend is £17,246 in 2020/21).

Eligibility: Applicants should have, or expect to achieve, a minimum of an upper-second-class Honours degree (2.1 or above) in a relevant subject.

How good is research at University of Sheffield in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 44.90

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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