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Smart Materials for Equipment-Free Surveillance of Plant Viruses

   School of Natural and Environmental Sciences

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  Dr T Howard, Dr J Stach, Prof LN Liu  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The productivity and resilience of agricultural systems faces multiple challenges including from climate change, growing consumer demand and global networks that have facilitated the spread of pests and diseases. In this project, you will use cell-free synthetic biology approaches for the identification of important plant viruses. Plant viruses pose an important threat to agricultural systems around the world. In developed agricultural systems the impact is predominantly economic, whilst in developing systems viruses threaten food security. Globally, they are responsible for losses estimated at €15b to €45b per year. The goal of this project is to improve in-field diagnostics and facilitate greater monitoring of the spread of plant diseases.

In this project, you will design molecular cascades capable of identifying target viruses. You will experimentally test these designs for their sensitivity and specificity. You will also gain hands-on experience in the use of cell-free transcription/translation reactions to broaden the biocomputational potential of these devices. You will be trained in mathematical modelling of biological systems and in the use of statistical Design of Experiments (DoE). By coupling these skills with the pipetting robotics available in our laboratory, you will be able to rapidly test, understand and optimise molecular performance. Further, you will take advantage of our expertise in embedding cell-free molecular biology reactions in physical chassis to develop multifunctional materials. These materials will be used to identify and discriminate between viruses and viral variants in a single extract. The project will also provide access to expertise in the design and manufacture of bio-enhanced and bio-inspired materials at both Newcastle and Liverpool. This project will therefore provide you with a wide-range of molecular biology, biochemical and computational skills relevant to many engineering biology projects.

The PhD is appropriate for a student with interests in the fundamentals of synthetic biology (i.e. model-guided design-build-test cycles) and biotechnology, who wishes to pursue these interests in a project with real-world applications and design constraints.


Applications should be made by emailing [Email Address Removed] with:

·        a CV (including contact details of at least two academic (or other relevant) referees);

·        a covering letter – clearly stating your first choice project, and optionally 2nd ranked project, as well as including whatever additional information you feel is pertinent to your application; you may wish to indicate, for example, why you are particularly interested in the selected project(s) and at the selected University;

·        copies of your relevant undergraduate degree transcripts and certificates;

·        a copy of your IELTS or TOEFL English language certificate (where required);

·        a copy of your passport (photo page).

A GUIDE TO THE FORMAT REQUIRED FOR THE APPLICATION DOCUMENTS IS AVAILABLE AT Applications not meeting these criteria may be rejected.

In addition to the above items, please email a completed copy of the Additional Details Form (as a Word document) to [Email Address Removed]. A blank copy of this form can be found at:

Informal enquiries may be made to [Email Address Removed]

The deadline for all applications is 12noon on Monday 9th January 2023. 

Funding Notes

Studentships are funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) for 4 years. Funding will cover tuition fees at the UK rate only, a Research Training and Support Grant (RTSG) and stipend. We aim to support the most outstanding applicants from outside the UK and are able to offer a limited number of bursaries that will enable full studentships to be awarded to international applicants. These full studentships will only be awarded to exceptional quality candidates, due to the competitive nature of this scheme.


1. Key reaction components affect the kinetics and performance robustness of cell-free protein synthesis reactions. Computational and Structural Biotechnology Journal (2022), 20 p218
2. pCAT vectors overcome inefficient electroporation of Cupriavidus necator H16. (2021) New BIOTECHNOLOGY, 65 p20.
3. Cell-free protein synthesis in hydrogel materials. Chemical Communications (2020), 56 p7108
4. Reprogramming bacterial protein organelles as a new nanoreactor for hydrogen production. Nature Communications (2020) 11 p5448.
5. Design of Experiments methodology to build a multifactorial statistical model describing the metabolic interactions of alcohol dehydrogenase isozymes in the ethanol biosynthetic pathway of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae (2018) ACS Synthetic Biology 7 p1676
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