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Nitrogen cycling in a subsurface serpentinising system – an analogue for early life on Earth

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Friday, January 03, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Project Rationale:
The emergence of life on Earth required abiotic syntheses of energy and organic compounds. For this, serpentinization –water-rock reactions coupling oxidation of ferrous iron to the generation of hydrogen –has in recent years been considered a key mechanism[1]. These reactions trigger further production of methane, simple organics and hyperalkaline hydrothermal fluids. Together with the proton and redox gradients, they create conditions highly conducive to chemosynthetic life. However, missing in these considerations is the source of nitrogen – an element essential to all life as required for proteins and nucleic acids, and sometimes also necessary for energy generation. It remains unclear how microorganisms living in serpentinizing systems obtain their nitrogen, and how this nutrient is cycled from one form to another.
This project aims to characterise active microbial nitrogen cycling within the serpentinizing system of the Oman ophiolite, the world’s largest peridotite massif[2]; and to trace the source of nitrogen for subsurface microbes. How the above may alter along fluid flow paths across sharp pH and redox gradients, and how diverse nitrogen-cycling reactions[3] may power life in a system simulating early life on Earth will be investigated. This may provide important insights into how life has evolved on Earth and beyond.

Funding Notes

You can apply for fully-funded studentships (stipend and fees) from INSPIRE if you:
Are a UK or EU national.
Have no restrictions on how long you can stay in the UK.
Have been 'ordinarily resident' in the UK for 3 years prior to the start of the project.

Please click View Website for more information on eligibilty and how to apply


[1] Russell, M. J., Hall, A. J. and Martin, W. (2010). Serpentinization as a source of energy at the origin of life. Geobiology 8(5): 355-371 DOI: 10.1111/j.1472-4669.2010.00249.x.
[2] Rempfert, K. R., Miller, H. M., Bompard, N., Nothaft, D., Matter, J. M., Kelemen, P., Fierer, N. and Templeton, A. S. (2017). Geological and Geochemical Controlson Subsurface Microbial Life in the Samail Ophiolite, Oman. Frontiers in Microbiology 8 DOI: 10.3389/fmicb.2017.00056.
[3] Lam, P. and Kuypers, M. M. M. (2011). Microbial Nitrogen Cycling Processes in Oxygen Minimum Zones. Annual Review of Marine Science 3(1): 317-345 DOI: doi:10.1146/annurev-marine-120709-142814.

How good is research at University of Southampton in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 68.62

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