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Investigating wheat straw hydrolysis for biogas production by co-cultures of anaerobic fungi and methanogens

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  • Full or part time
    Dr M Reilly
    Prof J P J Chong
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description


Anaerobic digestion (AD) is used at an industrial scale to convert a wide range of biomass-based feedstocks such as food waste, agricultural residues and sewage sludge into renewable biogas, a zero-carbon fuel and renewable chemical precursor. One potentially suitable and low-cost feedstock for AD is wheat straw. Approximately 10.2 million tonnes (Mt) of wheat straw is produced each year in the UK (increasing to >500 Mt globally). Due to a high lignocellulose content, wheat straw is hydrolysed relatively slowly by acidogenic bacteria during conventional anaerobic digestion.

Replacing acidogenic bacteria with anaerobic fungi has been identified as a potential way to reduce the time required for enzymatic hydrolysis of wheat straw and significantly reduce the cost of biogas production. This project aims to learn more about the symbiotic relationship which naturally exists between anaerobic fungi (which break down and consume wheat straw) and methanogens (which convert the fungal by-products to biomethane fuel).

Aims & Objectives

This PhD project will test the hypothesis that anaerobic fungi are able to hydrolyse wheat straw faster, and to a greater extent, in the presence of methanogens. The project will aim to characterise the biochemical and spatial relationships between methanogenic cells and anaerobic fungi and quantify the ability of co-cultures to degrade wheat straw.
The objectives of this laboratory-based project are to:
(i) Describe the relationship between H2 partial pressure, organic acid concentration and wheat straw hydrolysis by anaerobic fungi in the presence and absence of co-cultured methanogenic microbes
(ii) Identify metabolic shifts in anaerobic fungi caused by variations in environmental partial pressure of H2 and organic acid concentration
(iii) Compare the rate of wheat straw digestion between anaerobic fungi growing in isolation and in co-culture with methanogens
(iv) Provide details of proximity requirements for effective interactions between anaerobic fungi and methanogens on the enzymatic hydrolysis of wheat straw

In this project the student will receive the specialist knowledge and training required for the isolation, identification and growth of anaerobic fungi. This training will include a range of anaerobic microbiological techniques which are essential for working with defined cultures of anaerobic microorganisms. In addition, the successful candidate will develop their expertise in a wide range of biochemical analysis techniques, statistical analyses, transcriptomics, bioinformatics and gain an understanding of the technical challenges faced by industrial AD and lignocellulose biotechnology.

Dr. Matthew Reilly will act as the Director of Studies for this studentship. The supervision team also includes Prof. Michael Theodorou, Harper Adams University, Prof. James Chong, The University of York and Prof. Michelle O’Malley, University of California Santa Barbara.

Funding Notes

This studentship is fully funded for three years by the Department of Biology and covers: (i) a tax-free stipend (currently £15009 per year), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees at the UK/EU rate. The studentship is available to UK and EU students only.


Start date: 1st October 2020

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