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Structural and biophysical characterisation of novel plastic degrading enzymes

Project Description

Applications are invited for a fully-funded four year PhD studentship to commence in October 2020.

The PhD will be based at the University’s Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI), and will be supervised by Dr Michael Zahn, Prof John McGeehan and Dr Andy Pickford.

Established in 2019, the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) focuses on the discovery, engineering and deployment of new enzymes to accelerate advances in the circular economy -- with a focus on degradation of synthetic polymers and plastics and reuse of their component monomers.

The work will include:
-Identification of novel enzymes from diverse microbial and fungal sources
-Expression and purification of novel plastic degrading enzymes
-Crystallisation and data collection at the Diamond Light Source
-Biophysical characterisation of plastic degradation
-Biochemical analysis of enzyme kinetics
-Protein engineering to improve enzyme activity and thermostability for industrial applications
-Presentation of results at international conferences

Project description
Plastic products have become a major element in our modern life but, due to its recalcitrant nature, synthetic polymers are now one of the most challenging global waste problems. Although the polymers have existed for a number of decades, plastic pollution is found everywhere on our planet and poses a major threat in particular for marine organisms (1) but also for humans in the form of microplastics (2).

At the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) at the University of Portsmouth we aim to identify and optimise plastic degrading enzymes. A PET eating bacterium called Ideonella sakaiensis was discovered at a bottle-recycling facility in Japan (3), and researchers at the CEI were able to solve the crystal structure of the PET degrading enzyme (PETase) (4). The atomic resolution provides insights into PET binding and serves as a starting model for enzyme engineering. However, PET plastic represents only one of the range of synthetic polymers. In order to solve the global plastic problem we need to find degradation enzymes for all sorts of plastics.

Therefore, we are looking for an outstanding motivated young research student with a strong background in biochemistry, structural biology and/or biophysics to join our team at the CEI in Portsmouth. You will work together with microbiologists, biochemists, structural biologists and computational scientists to identify, express, purify and solve the structures of novel plastic degrading enzymes. In addition, you will biophysically and biochemically characterise plastic degradation, e.g. using scanning electron microscopy, and engineer the new enzymes towards higher activity and thermostability. Furthermore, you will be part of our international network and present new findings at international conferences.

General admissions criteria
The project requires a candidate with a good first degree (minimum 2.1 or equivalent) in Biochemistry or a related subject, and a desire to excel as a disciplined scientist within a cohesive research team. Potential applicants with a Masters-level qualification, or equivalent experience in a relevant field, are strongly encouraged to apply.
English language proficiency at a minimum of IELTS band 6.5 with no component score below 6.0.

Specific candidate requirements
We are looking for an outstanding motivated young research student with a strong background in biochemistry, structural biology and/or biophysics.

How to Apply
We’d encourage you to contact Dr Michael Zahn () to discuss your interest before you apply, quoting both the project code and the project title. For administrative and admissions enquiries please contact .

When you are ready to apply, you can use our online application form making sure you submit a personal statement, proof of your degrees and grades, details of two referees, proof of your English language proficiency and an up-to-date CV. Our ‘How to Apply’ page offers further guidance on the PhD application process.

If you want to be considered for this funded PhD opportunity you must quote project code BIOL5190220 when applying.

Interview date: Week commencing Monday 2nd March 2020

Funding Notes

The studentship is available to UK and EU students only and covers tuition fees and an annual maintenance grant of £15,009 (UKRI 2019/20 rate) for three years. University funding will be made available to offer extensions into a 4th year where this will maximise scientific output and boost research careers. Funds of £7,500 per annum are available to cover research expenses and support attendance at workshops and conferences.


1. Li WC et al. (2016) Plastic waste in the marine environment: A review of sources, occurrence and effects. Sci Total Environ. 566-567:333-349.
2. Wright SL, Kelly FJ (2017) Plastic and Human Health: A Micro Issue? Environ Sci Technol. 51(12):6634-6647.
3. Yoshida S et al. (2016) A bacterium that degrades and assimilates poly(ethylene terephthalate). Science 351:1196–1199.
4. Austin HP et al. (2018) Characterization and engineering of a plastic-degrading aromatic polyesterase. PNAS 115(19):E4350-E4357.

How good is research at University of Portsmouth in Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 23.80

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

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