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Larval-diatom interactions during marine invertebrate metamorphosis. , NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Biosciences

   College of Life and Environmental Sciences

Exeter United Kingdom Marine Sciences

About the Project

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

Project Background

Most marine invertebrates have a life cycle with a free-swimming, planktonic larval stage that settles to the ocean floor and undergoes metamorphosis. The transition from larva to juvenile is guided by environmental signals that indicate the optimal time and place to settle down and metamorphose. Despite the importance of this process in shaping marine invertebrate population structure, we still know remarkably little about the interactions that occur between marine invertebrate larvae and their environment during the detection of and response to natural settlement cues. This project utilizes a key model organism to investigate marine larval settlement: the polychaete worm Platynereis dumerilii, and its recently discovered settlement cue, diatom biofilm. Finescale investigation of Platynereis-diatom interactions during larval settlement will contribute to understanding how microorganisms guide development in the sea. A better understanding of larval settlement has potential applications in improving marine invertebrate aquaculture, preventing biofouling in shipping and aquaculture industries, and optimizing the selection of sites for protected marine reserves.

Project Aims and Methods

This project will investigate how the benthic microenvironment influences Platynereis larval settlement behaviour, subsequent metamorphosis and growth. Specific questions to be addressed are:

(1) How selective are Platynereis larvae in their choice of diatom settlement cue? The student will determine whether Platynereis preferentially settles on different diatom species through video imaging analysis of Platynereis larval behaviour and growth in response to different benthic diatom species sourced from lab cultures and benthic environments hosting natural populations of Platynereis. 

(2) What specific diatom metabolites act as signals for Platynereis larvae? Diatom metabolites will be extracted and analysed by mass spectrometry, then tested in larval settlement assays. Metabolites identified as inducers or inhibitors of settlement will be confirmed by CRISPR-Cas mediated gene knockout of the metabolite’s enzyme pathway in the relevant diatom species. The presence of key metabolites in naturally occurring biofilms will be quantified to assess their ecological relevance. 

(3) How do diatoms influence Platynereis larval physiology during settlement? The neuronal response of Platynereis to diatom cues will be characterized using live calcium imaging to identify neurons that are activated or repressed upon diatom or diatom metabolite exposure. 

(4) Does settlement cue preference vary between Platynereis from different habitats? The student will compare the species-specific diatom settlement response of larvae sourced from natural populations of Platynereis in the UK and Mediterranean Sea.

Candidate requirements

A biosciences degree in a relevant field such as marine biology, molecular biology, or biotechnology. Interest in/previous experience with learning basic molecular biology techniques is desirable. Enthusiasm for marine invertebrate and/or microalgal biology is essential.

Project partners 

The Marine Biological Association (MBA) is a world-renowned marine research institute with a vibrant research community. The candidate will benefit from access to the Plymouth Culture Collection of marine algae, MBA training opportunities (eg Advanced Microscopy Course), and will have the opportunity to contribute to science communication and public engagement activities organized through the MBA.


Training will be provided in the collection and culture of marine invertebrates and microalgae, plus advanced cell and molecular biology techniques including microinjection, genome editing, fluorescence microscopy and bioinformatics. The candidate will also receive training in basic scientific research skills, including data analysis and presentation, poster and talk preparation, and article writing and editing.


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 (which will be covered by the studentship). 

International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. More information on this is available from the universities you are applying to (contact details are provided in the project description that you are interested in.

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex and you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.

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

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2022 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,609 per annum for 2021-22.


Conzelmann M1, Williams EA1, et al. 2013. Conserved MIP receptor-ligand pair regulates Platynereis larval settlement. PNAS USA, 110(20): 8224 – 8229.
Helliwell KE, et al. 2021. A novel Ca2+ signalling pathway co-ordinates environmental phosphorous sensing and nitrogen metabolism in marine diatoms. Current Biology, 31: 1-12.
Useful links
For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor via (Elizabeth Williams).

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