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QUADRAT DTP: Impact of climate change on stability of sponge-microbe symbiosis

Project Description

This project aims to understand the biodiversity and stability (resilience and resistance) of sponge-microbe symbiosis following multiple environmental perturbations influenced by climate change. Sponges are widespread heterotrophic animals in marine environments, which perform a critical ecosystem service, i.e. filtration of sea-water. One of the key waste products of such process is ammonia and removal of ammonia is facilitated by microbial ammonia oxidisers such as Thaumarchaeota. The Thaumarchaeota use ammonia as a substrate for their energy generation. This relationship has been understudied preventing understanding of the factors controlling the symbiotic specificity and environmental distribution. In addition, this symbiosis is under threat as climate change has important environmental consequences for marine organisms. Therefore, this project aims to determine the biogeographical distribution of Thaumarchaeota-associated sponges (with a primary focus on Irish and British territorial waters) and to understand the ecological processes by which symbiotic Thaumarchaeota adapt to multiple stressors related to climate change.

These aims will be analysed through a combination of key scientific questions with cutting-edge methodological approaches to provide exciting novel discoveries that will contribute to understanding the mechanisms underlying microbial ecology and evolution in natural environments. Sponge samples will be based on existing collections as well as field sampling to be performed by the student. Molecular approaches (including high-throughput sequencing) will be applied to analyse both microbial and the sponge diversity at the population level. These diversity results will also be used to understand the symbiotic community assembly processes controlling for symbiotic association with the various hosts. A multifactorial environmental perturbation experiment will be performed to understand the effect of pH acidification, temperature increase and nutrient loading on the symbiotic stability using a state-of the-art aquarium controlled mesocosm facility. In particular, the resistance and resilience of the microbial communities to these different environmental perturbations will help predict the adaptation of these organisms to climate change.

The PhD student will join a dynamic team of researchers headed by Dr Gubry-Rangin (University of Aberdeen). This well-established group with a world-wide reputation in microbial ecology and a high-impact track record focuses on ecology and evolution of ammonia oxidisers in various ecosystems (Gubry-Rangin et al., 2015; Hink et al., 2018). The student will also strongly interact with the research group of Prof Emmerson (Queen’s University Belfast), widely renowned for ecological theory and ecosystem stability (Barrios-O’Neill et al. 2019).

The PhD student will be part of a cohort of PhD students interested in environmental management, biodiversity and earth systems science, and will collaborate with a broad network of end-users and stake-holders. An excellent scientific environment will be provided to the student, with training on several state-of-the-art technological facilities, including genomic platforms and cutting-edge molecular and environmental facilities. The PhD student will therefore benefit from excellence in environmental science research with specific knowledge on research impact and policies critical for achieving Sustainable Development Goals, while gaining a diverse range of transferable and generic skills to ensure their competitive future career paths.


Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at Master’s level.


• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Sciences
• State name of the lead supervisor as ‘Name of Proposed Supervisor’ on application
• State ‘QUADRAT DTP’ as Intended Source of Funding
• Select the ‘Visit Website’ to apply now

Funding Notes

This project is funded by the NERC QUADRAT-DTP and is available to UK/EU nationals who meet the UKRI eligibility criteria. Please visit View Website for more information.

The studentship provides funding for tuition fees, stipend and a research training and support grant subject to eligibility.


Gubry-Rangin C, Kratsch C, Williams TA, McHardy AC, Embley TM, Prosser JI, Macqueen DJ (2015) Coupling of diversification and pH adaptation during the evolution of terrestrial Thaumarchaeota. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 112:9370-5.

Hink L, Gubry-Rangin C, Nicol GW, Prosser JI (2018) The consequences of niche and physiological differentiation of archaeal and bacterial ammonia oxidisers for nitrous oxide emissions. ISME Journal 12:1084-93.

Barrios O'Neill, D., Kelly, R., Emmerson, M. (2019) Biomass encounter rates limit the size scaling of feeding interactions. Ecology Letters. 22: 1870-1878.

How good is research at Aberdeen University in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 89.42

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

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