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  Role of symbiotic microbes of phytoplankton in future ocean carbon storage and productivity

   Department of Life Sciences

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  Prof T Bell, Dr Fengjie Liu, Dr A Shevchuk, Prof Y Korchev  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Marine phytoplankton has a key impact on global carbon and nitrogen cycles. However, their growth is strongly influenced by other smaller microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, that live in the ‘phycosphere’: a micrometer scale space directly surrounding the phytoplankton cells. The phycosphere microbiota are poorly studied but appear to have broad impact on exchange of nutrients, metabolites, and signaling molecules. Phycosphere microbiota may therefore help explain the large error in predicting oceanic carbon budget, and climate models, which do not fully account for their impact. The importance of the phycosphere microbiota has been a puzzle for four decades but we have recently developed novel nanotechnology-based tools that have made it possible to open the black box of the unique micro-environment.  

This project is carefully designed to produce a new understanding of phytoplankton-bacteria interactions. Using an interdisciplinary approach including Bio-physics, Microbiology and Oceanography, this project will aim to (1) identify the phycosphere microbes in major groups of marine eukaryotic phytoplankton via novel nano-probes and single-cell sequencing method; (2) quantify growth effects of the phycosphere microbes on the host phytoplankton and underlying mechanisms; and (3) investigate how the community of phycosphere microbes evolve in a warmer and acidifying ocean. Such knowledge is an essential component for predicting future ocean carbon storage and productivity in a changing climate. 

This project is linked to research activities at the Leverhulme Centre for the Holobiont led by Prof. Thomas Bell (, which aims to understand the associations between microbes and host organisms. The project will employ novel nano-probes, originally developed for cancer research by Dr Andrew Shevchuk and Prof. Yuri Korchev, and this research is also closely aligned with the NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) project of Dr Fengjie Liu on how marine bacteria in the phycosphere of diatoms alter iron bioavailability.  

The students will get trained in novel nanotechnology-based tools, state-of-the-art methods for single cell sequencing, and they will have opportunities to participate in oceanographic research cruises. The students will be expected to attend national and international conferences and publish their research.  

They will engage in the associated PhD training and activities of the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and Environment and the Department of Life Sciences. They will also benefit from a career development PhD training programme at Imperial College. 

Informal enquiries are welcomed and should be sent to Prof. Thomas Bell ([Email Address Removed]) or Dr. Fengjie Liu ([Email Address Removed]) 

How to apply: 

Please email Prof. Thomas Bell or Dr. Fengjie Liu and include in your application: 

  • Statement of Purpose 
  • Your CV 
  • At least two references to be sent directly to Prof. Thomas Bell or Dr. Fengjie Liu from the referees. 

Biological Sciences (4) Environmental Sciences (13)

Funding Notes

The funding will include 3.5 years of funding, which will cover:
Home tuition fees at UKRI indicative rate (£4,786pa for 2024/25)
A maintenance stipend, paid in equal monthly instalments directly to your bank account (£21,237pa for 2024/25)
A total of up to £5,000 is available during the duration of the project to contribute towards research expenses associated with your project, including conference costs, consumables, and travel for research purposes.
We welcome home and international candidates to apply, but for overseas applicants, any costs over and above home support will need to be covered by applicants.
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