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Mechanisms underlying the coral larval settlement BBSRC SWBio DTP PhD studentship 2023 Entry. PhD in Biosciences

   Department of Biosciences

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  Dr E Williams, Dr K Helliwell  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The BBSRC-funded South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP) involves a partnership of world-renown universities, research institutes and industry across the South West and Wales.

This partnership represents a distinctive group of bioscientists, with established international, national and regional networks, and widely recognised research excellence.

We aim to provide students with outstanding interdisciplinary research training within the following themes, underpinned by transformative technologies:

These are growth areas of the biosciences and for which there will be considerable future demand.

The award:

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP). 

Programme Overview

You will be recruited to a broad, interdisciplinary project, supported by a multidisciplinary supervisory team, with many cross-institutional projects available. There are also opportunities to:

• apply your research in an industrial setting (DTP CASE studentships).

• undertake research jointly with our core and associate partners (Standard DTP studentships with an   


• work with other national/international researchers.

• undertake fieldwork.

Our structured training programme will ensure you are well equipped as a bioscience researcher, supporting careers into academia, industry and beyond. 

Project Description

Global environmental changes threaten coral reefs. Coral larval settlement is vital for the sustenance of the coral reef ecosystem and is considered key to the recovery of reef communities following environmental stress or anthropogenic disturbances. Like most marine benthic invertebrates, the corals develop into adults via a ciliated larval stage that forms part of the zooplankton.

Understanding how the coral larvae respond to environmental cues is key to understanding larval metamorphosis and settlement, especially in changing climatic conditions. Several studies in numerous reefbuilding coral larvae have revealed an array of abiotic and biotic factors that drive the larval settlement.

During the 4 / 14 settlement, the larva exhibits a searching behaviour to identify a suitable substrate, and the process is facilitated through a complex larval sensory system. In many species of ciliated larvae, the apical organ, a larval sensory structure composed of nervous system components, aids in environmental signal perception. Given the specificity of the apical organ to the larval stage, it has been proposed to serve a function in guiding larval swimming behaviour and larval settlement. Despite its apparent ecological significance, the function and molecular fingerprint of the apical organ in coral larvae remain largely unexplored. To this end, we aim to reveal the cell types, transcription factors and neuropeptides associated with the larval sensory system. The study will enlighten the role of the sensory system in larval swimming behaviour, metamorphosis and settlement.

Research Methodology:

The student will contribute to culturing and maintaining the selected list of coral species and, if necessary, help establishing a new culture organism. For each chosen species, the larvae will be subjected to spatial transcriptomics. The transcriptome data will be analysed to generate a spatial/molecular map of the larval cell types of each species. Using in situ hybridisations (ISH) and immunohistochemistry, the student will validate expression patterns and the distribution of cell types.

Finally, bioinformatic analysis and ISH data will be used to reveal the cell types, transcription factors and neuropeptides associated with the larval sensory system. Next, an array of abiotic and biotic factors will be tested on larvae to elucidate the mechanisms governing the coral larval settlement.


The student will gain the following skills throughout their PhD

I) Culturing an array of coral species. II) Molecular biology: RNA isolation, PCR, cloning, in situ hybridisations and immunohistochemistry.

II) Bioinformatic analysis: RNA-seq and single-cell sequencing analysis.

III) Advanced microscopy: confocal, fluorescent and lightsheet microscopy.

IV) Larval behaviour experiments with a list of abiotic and biotic factors. V) Experimental design, data analysis, critical thinking, and scientific writing.

Part Time and Flexible Study Options

Part time study options maybe available please discuss with the supervisor. For further information please see -

Due to complexities and restrictions associated with visas for part-time studies, we are currently unable to accept part-time international students to the programme.

Entry Requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Masters degree or have significant relevant non-academic experience.

In addition, due to the strong mathematical component of the taught course in the first year and the quantitative emphasis in our projects, quantitative/mathematical experience is needed. This can be demonstrated through one or more of the following:

  • Undertaking units as part of your degree that have a significant quantitative/mathematical component*
  • Maths or Physics A-level (grade B and above)

*Significant mathematical component examples include; maths, statistics, bioinformatics.

Applicants must ensure they highlight their quantitative/mathematical background within their application and to upload any supporting evidence.

To support accessibility to PhD training opportunities, these studentships are only available to applicants that have not previously obtained or about to obtain a PhD degree (or equivalent).

How to apply

The closing date for applications is midnight on Monday, 5 December 2022. Interviews will be held between 1st and 15th February 2023.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email [Email Address Removed].

Project-specific queries should be directed to the primary supervisor.

For further information and to submit an application please visit -

Selection Process:

Please note, the studentship selection process will take place in two stages:

For further information please go to -

Funding Notes

A fully-funded four year SWBio DTP studentship will cover
• a stipend* (at the standard Research Council UK rate; currently £17.668 per annum for 2022-23)
• research and training costs
• tuition fees (at the standard Research Councils UK rate)
• additional funds to support fieldwork, conferences and a 3-month internship
*An enhanced stipend is available for students with a recognised veterinary degree qualification (£24,789 per annum for 2022-2023). There may also be enhanced stipends associated with projects that have a CASE partner (CASE projects are highlighted as *CASE in the project lists).
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