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  SUPER DTP: The impact of environmental change on the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of symbiotic sponge communities

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Prof Cecile Gubry-Rangin, Dr Ted Henry  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

This fully funded, 42-month PhD project is part of the SUPER DTP. The SUPER DTP is built around a well-established collaborative group of universities delivering world-leading research in natural environmental science.

Sponges are widespread heterotrophic animals in marine environments, and they perform a critical ecosystem service, i.e. filtration of seawater. Microbial communities are present within these marine animals, and the diversity of the sponge microbiome is related to the sponge species and also to the environment in which the sponges live. One of the key waste products of seawater filtration is ammonia and removal of ammonia is facilitated by microbial ammonia oxidisers such as Thaumarchaeota, as they use ammonia as a substrate for their energy generation. The relationship between sponges and their microbial symbiotic communities, including Thaumarchaeota, has been understudied. This has prevented an understanding of the factors controlling the symbiotic specificity and system stability following environmental change. However, this symbiosis is under threat as climate change has important environmental consequences for marine organisms.

Therefore, this project aims to understand the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms controlling for the stability (resilience and resistance) of sponge-microbe symbiosis following environmental perturbations influenced by climate change. Factors such as temperature change, water acidification and increased pollutant amendments are classical threads, known to influence microbial communities. However, little is known about symbiotic microbes. renowned collaborators with strong expertise in sponges will be associated with this project, offering some great sampling opportunities and fantastic access to collection databases. Among the diverse approaches applicable to answer this key question of eco-evo dynamics of symbiotic microbial communities, a combination of novel DNA sequencing and metagenome reconstruction would be included. Analyses of microbial communities would also be required.

As one of the potentially important sponge symbiont, this PhD would also include a specific focus on Thaumarchaeota (Gubry-Rangin et al., 2015). Indeed, several Thaumarchaeota are one of the only archaeal phyla containing both free-living and symbiotic organisms, so this sponge-archaea model will enable analysis of the evolutionary lifestyle transition from free-living to symbiotic state in archaea. A diverse set of free-living representative genomes has been recently assembled and used to infer ancestral evolutionary history of this lineage using metagenomic assemblies, phylogenomic reconstruction and associated bioinformatic evolutionary approaches (Sheridan et al., 2020). Following sponge sampling in diverse locations (Indonesia, Spain, UK…), this project will focus on symbiotic Thaumarchaeota to reconstruct their potential metabolic capabilities and infer the rates of gene acquisition, gene duplication, gene loss and lateral gene transfer along their evolution. The student will also assess which genomic pathways have the exciting potential to enable Thaumarchaeota to respond to several environmental perturbations linked with climate change.

The student will benefit from an active interdisciplinary collaborative network and will be trained in a series of cutting-edge lab- and computer-based approaches to provide exciting novel discoveries that will contribute to understanding the mechanisms underlying microbial ecology and evolution in natural environments.

Candidate Background:

The academic requirement for entry is a first or upper second class degree or equivalent. Experience in bioinformatics, molecular biology or microbiology is recommended. Scuba diving and field sampling experience is a plus. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at master’s level.

We encourage applications from all backgrounds and communities, and are committed to having a diverse, inclusive team. Informal enquiries are welcome, please contact Professor Cecile Gubry-Rangin ([Email Address Removed]) for further information.


Application Procedure:

  • Please visit this page for full instructions on how to submit your application.
  • Please DO NOT apply through the University application portal.
  • Please ensure that two written references from your referees are submitted. It is your responsibility to ensure these are provided, as we will not request references on your behalf.
  • Unfortunately, due to workload constraints, we cannot consider incomplete applications.
  • CVs submitted directly through a FindAPhD enquiry WILL NOT be considered.
  • If you require any additional assistance in submitting your application or have any queries about the application process, please don't hesitate to contact us at [Email Address Removed]
Biological Sciences (4)

Funding Notes

Please note: This opportunity is open to Home/UK applicants only.
This is a 42-month full time (or 84 months part time), directly funded project as part of the SUPER DTP which provides:
*A monthly stipend for accommodation and living costs, based on UKRI rates (£18,622 for the 23/24 academic year. Stipend rates for the 24/25 academic year have not been set yet)
*UK Level Tuition Fees
*Research and Training Costs


• Sheridan PO, Raguideau S, Quince C, Holden J, Zhang L, Thames Consortium, Williams TA, Gubry-Rangin C. (2020) Gene duplication drives genome expansion in a major lineage of Thaumarchaeota. Nat Com 11(1):5494.
• Gubry-Rangin C, Kratsch C, Williams TA, McHardy AC, Embley TM, Prosser JI, Macqueen DJ. (2015) Coupling of diversification and pH adaptation during the evolution of terrestrial Thaumarchaeota. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 112(30):9370-5. (IF: 9.81)

Where will I study?