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Testing the risks of chemicals to the Arbuscular Mycorrhiza Symbiosis (Ref: CTP-SAI-041)


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  Dr S Schornack, Dr Christopher Sweeney  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Arbuscular mycorrhiza (AM) is a symbiosis formed between soil fungi and plant roots. Most land plants including our most widely grown crops benefit from this symbiosis. AM fungi provide plants with nutrients, stress resilience, and they support key soil ecosystem services e.g. nutrient cycling.

In agroecosystems AM fungi are inevitably exposed to herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, together called plant protection products (PPPs) and their effect on AM symbiosis can vary in magnitude and direction. The European Food Safety Authority have recommended the inclusion of AM fungi in the European pesticide risk assessment process. There is now a significant need for new approaches to screening chemicals and their impact on AM symbioses.

We have recently developed an innovative method to non-invasively monitor and visualise the AM symbiosis in real-time (Timoneda & Yunusov et al. 2021, PLOS Biology, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3001326). Here, we established betalain pigments as in vivo visual markers for the occurrence and distribution of AM fungal colonisation in Nicotiana benthamiana root systems. Betalain colouration is specific to colonised root tissues and cells and allows for the non-invasive tracing of fungal colonisation along the root system over time. In combination with either image analysis or colorimetric methods, this in vivo system offers the potential for significantly higher throughput measurement of AM compared to traditional root microscopy.


This project aims to test the hypothesis that a betalain root symbiosis reporter system will enable field-relevant predictions of the potential risk of chemicals to AM fungi. To test this, you will combine quantitative imaging, histology, genetic and molecular approaches to

  1. Establish a medium throughput small pot root analysis system to visualise and study the impact of PPPs on the AM symbiosis, a broad-spectrum fungicide will serve as positive control.
  2. Investigate whether such test system allows for the detection of dose-response effects of PPPs on the AM symbiosis
  3. Assess the extent to which observations in the model plant Nicotiana benthamiana are indicative of outcomes in agronomically relevant species
  4. Test whether the impact of PPPs on AM root colonisation is local at the point of exposure or can systemically spread from shoot into the root or across the root
  5. The project also holds the potential to survey for genes underpinning observed effects.

You will share your findings with the research community through preprints and publications as well as presentations. Your work will enhance our understanding of the study of AM symbioses and help enabling the next generation of sustainable chemistries to promote safer and more sustainable agriculture and enhance soil biodiversity in agroecosystems.

This studentship offers a research training experience in an inclusive and supportive environment. You will furthermore undertake an internship at the Syngenta research facilities to gain an understanding of the role of compound screening in PPP development as well as scientific and regulatory challenges of product development and registration.


This PhD will be based at the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University and registered with the University of Cambridge.


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.


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 Sebastian Schornack, primary contact (www.schornacklab.net, twitter: @dromius) and Christopher Sweeney 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 Master’s 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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