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“Shellshock” - Developing methods of using chitin to reduce potato cyst nematode populations (Ref: CTP-SAI-043)


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  Dr M Back, Dr T Pope, Dr Joe Roberts, Dr Gerard Bishop, Mr Ron Stobart  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Potato cyst nematodes (PCN) (Globodera spp.) occupy c.48% of the potato growing area in England and Wales (AHDB, 2019) and 13.2% of production land in Scotland (Pickup et al., 2019). The concerns associated with PCN, include long-term survival in soil (20+ years), severe yield loss in unprotected crops (up to 80%), legislation surrounding seed production and diminishing chemical control options. Various alternative crop protection options are being investigated including biofumigants, trap crops and soil amendments such as chitin. Chitin is present in several industry by-products including shellfish waste composed of crustaceans such as langoustines, crabs and lobsters, spent mushroom compost (SMC) and the frass and pupal cases associated with black soldier fly (BSF) production. Chitin and chitosan (deacetylated form of chitin) are thought to suppress pathogens by 1. Increasing populations of microbes that secrete chitinase; fungi and nematodes contain chitin in their cell walls and eggshells respectively, 2. Causing the release of ammonia, which is toxic to pests and pathogens, 3. Enhancing the activity of antagonists such as Bacillus subtilis, which secrete chitinase, 4. Inducing plant resistance by acting as a plant defense elicitor. This project seeks to evaluate the potential of chitinous amendments in the suppression of PCN.


Evaluate the ability of chitinous soil amendments to suppress PCN populations in controlled conditions and within potato rotations: Glasshouse and field experiments will compare pure chitin and chitosan amendments against organic by-products. We will assess changes in PCN populations by determining egg number and through measurement of trehalose content in the egg shells. Trehalose is a sugar found in the perivitelline layer of egg shells of PCN; loss of trehalose is indicative of egg mortality. Analysis will include assessing the impact of chitin on the performance of the potato crop through measuring ground cover and yield. Variables to be assessed will include timing and quantity of amendments.

  1. Develop and optimise the method for evaluating chitinase activity E.g. using colorimetry such as that detailed in Ferrari et al., (2013).
  2. Investigate mechanisms of PCN suppression using the chitinase assay discussed above and/or measurement of ammonia E.g. Martins et al. (2021).
  3. Develop methods for optimising and combing the use of chitinous soil amendments with other non-chemical methods, including applications with biopesticides such as Bacillus subtilis or mycorrhiza and cover crop species.
  4. Evaluate, the impact of organic soil amendments on soil health using bioindicators such as collembola and/or earthworms.


This PhD will be based at and registered with Harper Adams University.


Students will have access to training opportunities through their University to complement their scientific development. This will be augmented by training in key bioscience areas such as statistics through the CTP-SAI.

There will be additional skills training to enhance employability and research capability. All CTP-SAI students will receive Graduate Training in Leadership and Management from MDS (www.mds-ltd.co.uk). Additionally, students will create their Personal Development Plan (PDP) to identify their development needs and areas of strength. Each student will receive individual coaching and mentoring pertinent to their career plans and skills development in addition to the scientific project supervision.

The PhD studentship also provides an invaluable opportunity to connect with Sainsbury’s retail expertise and grower groups, helping the student gain a better understanding of the food supply chain.


Placements are a key feature of CTP and UKRI-BBSRC expects all doctoral candidates on a CTP programme to undertake a placement. Placements can be in the form of research placements (3-18 months duration) or used more flexibly for experiential learning of professional skills for business and/or entrepreneurship. All placements are developed in collaboration between the partners with input from the doctoral candidate.


Contact Dr Matthew Back for an informal discussion on the research content of this PhD.

Beginning in October 2023, the successful candidate should have (or expect to have) an Honours Degree (or equivalent) with a minimum of 2.1 in Plant Science, Applied Statistics, or other related science subjects. Students with an appropriate Masters degree are particularly encouraged to apply.

We welcome UK, EU, and international applicants. Candidates whose first language is not English must provide evidence that their English language is sufficient to meet the specific demands of their study. Candidates should check the requirements for each host organization they are applying to, but IELTS 6.5 (with no component below 6.0) or equivalent is usually the minimum standard.

Anyone interested should complete the online application form before the deadline of 6th January 2023. Interviews will take place at the end of January/beginning of February 2023.

Please contact [Email Address Removed] for further application details.

Apply now

Funding Notes

This studentship is for four years and is fully funded in line with UKRI-BBSRC standard rates. These are:
An annual maintenance stipend of £17,668, fee support of £4,596, a research training support grant of £5,000 and conference and UK fieldwork expenses of £300.
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