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   Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

  ,  Monday, February 06, 2023  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Project overview. Our understanding of planetary habitability is necessarily limited to our knowledge of life on Earth. A fundamental and as yet underexplored component of habitability is the availability of organic chemical energy for growth. Potentially habitable planetary bodies like Mars and Europa host a plethora of inorganic compounds that could be used as sources of energy (for instance ferric iron, sulfate in minerals and perchlorate at and near the surface), but the availability of organic substrates for growth in anaerobic microbial metabolism is not well undestood.

This project will combine experimental and molecular microbiology, geochemistry and energetic predictions to assess the ability for microbial life to be fuelled by organic material prevalent in carbonaceous meteorites. These meteorites have rained down on planetary bodies for billions of years, hence organic carbon is not expected to be limiting. Indeed, complex organic matter akin to that found in carbonaceous condrites was recently detected at Gale Crater on Mars. Most life on Earth uses organic carbon as a substrate for growth, yet the extent to which the myriad organic compounds in meteorites expected to be present on Mars and other potentially habitable planetary bodies is unknown. This represents a critical knowledge gap to our understanding of habitability beyond Earth, and is the focus of this exciting multidisciplinary Astrobiology PhD project.

Project description. The key question underpinning this project is ‘How bioavailable is organic carbon in meteorites?’. To address this, you will test whether organic compounds common to carbonaceous meteorites can sustain anaerobic microbes, drawing on relevant metabolisms to Mars and other planetary bodies (e.g. iron and sulfur cycling, fermentation). These experimental approaches will draw on model organisms as well as relevant enrichment cultures from analogue field sites, and track microbial metabolism with traditional as well as with meta-omics and geochemical approaches. There will be opportunities to spend time in the labs of the external supervisors as part of the project.

Alongside these experimental approaches, you will employ Gibbs free energy calculations to define the energetic and relative favourability of meteoritic organics for growth-supporting reactions. The ultimate goal of the project is to contribute new knowledge on the boundaries of life to our working definition of habitability.

Suggested skills needed. This project would be ideally suited to someone with an interest in multidisciplinary science who is comfortable with biology and chemistry, and has a strong background in Earth / Environmental Sciences (BSc or MSc / MSci).

Please contact in an email to discuss the project before you apply. 


Application process – essential information you need to read:


·        You are applying for a fully funded PhD project for which, if you are successful in your application, you would receive a monthly stipend, have the university fees paid for, and be awarded some money to support lab costs and travel.

·        Read the information on the DEES webpage to ensure that you understand the funding eligibility requirements for the award.

·        Contact the supervisors to discuss your interest in the project – this is an essential step so that you can ask questions and find out more about the supervisory team before you apply.

·        Your formal application must be made online at (please note you will not need to upload your own research proposal for this project during this stage of the application as you are applying for a specific project). In your application, we want to see how your experience is relevant to the project that you have applied for. Please ensure that the people you have asked to submit references for you do this by the requested date. You are applying for an STFC-funded project (PhD STFC Earth and Environmental Sciences).Please check with the project supervisor(s) that your application has been received by the university a few days before the deadline.

·        As this is a funded position, the application process is competitive. The applications received will be initially reviewed by the project supervisory team and they will put forward their preferred candidates for a panel review process. An STFC DTP academic panel will then review all the nominated students and decide who to shortlist for an interview. An interview with shortlisted candidates will then take place remotely so that the panel can meet the short-listed candidates and decide who to offer the studentship to. The interview normally lasts about 20-30 minutes. Candidates are normally informed within a few days of the interview if they have been offered a funded studentship. If you are offered a studentship, you are more than welcome to come and visit the department and group research facilities and meet with our current STFC students and staff. 

Equality, diversity and inclusion is fundamental to the success of The University of Manchester, and is at the heart of all of our activities. We know that diversity strengthens our research community, leading to enhanced research creativity, productivity and quality, and societal and economic impact. We actively encourage applicants from diverse career paths and backgrounds and from all sections of the community, regardless of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation and transgender status.

We also support applications from those returning from a career break or other roles. We consider offering flexible study arrangements (including part-time: 50%, 60% or 80%, depending on the project/funder).

All appointments are made on merit.

Funding Notes

Funding will cover UK tuition fee and stipend at current UKRI standard rate for a September 2023 start. The University of Manchester aims to support the most outstanding applicants from outside the UK. We are able to offer a limited number of scholarships 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.


• Sephton MA (2002) Organic compounds in carbonaceous meteorites. Natural Product Reports 19(3):292-311
• Nixon et al (2013) Plausible microbial metabolisms on Mars. Astronomy and Geophysics 54(1):1.13-1.16
• Nixon et al (2022) Limitations of microbial iron reduction under extreme conditions. FEMS Microbiology Reviews DOI: 10.1093/femsre/fuac033
• Macey et al (2020) The identification of sulfide oxidation as a potential metabolism driving primary production on late Noachian Mars. Scientific Reports 10(1):1-13

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