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To kill or not to kill: deciphering the metabolic triggers of a facultative algicidal bacterium Ponticoccus. BBSRC SWBio DTP PhD studentship 2023 Entry - PhD in Biosciences


   Department of Biosciences

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  Dr K Helliwell, Prof N Smirnoff  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The BBSRC-funded South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP) involves a partnership of world-renown universities, research institutes and industry across the South West and Wales.

This partnership represents a distinctive group of bioscientists, with established international, national and regional networks, and widely recognised research excellence.

We aim to provide students with outstanding interdisciplinary research training within the following themes, underpinned by transformative technologies:

These are growth areas of the biosciences and for which there will be considerable future demand.

The award:

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP). 

Programme Overview

You will be recruited to a broad, interdisciplinary project, supported by a multidisciplinary supervisory team, with many cross-institutional projects available. There are also opportunities to:

• apply your research in an industrial setting (DTP CASE studentships).

• undertake research jointly with our core and associate partners (Standard DTP studentships with an  associate partner).

• work with other national/international researchers.

• undertake fieldwork.

Our structured training programme will ensure you are well equipped as a bioscience researcher, supporting careers into academia, industry and beyond. 

Project Description

Diatoms account for 20% of global primary production, support key fisheries, and are a major sink for rising atmospheric CO2. These organisms also have great potential as a feedstock for the production of high-value products and biofuel. It is thus critical to better understand factors controlling diatom growth, physiology and metabolism. We are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of biotic interactions between diatoms and other microbes in regulating diatom growth, although very few have been characterised directly.

This project builds on our recent environmental survey to discover bacteria that interact with diatoms. This work led to the identification of a facultative algicidal bacterium, Ponticoccus, which can kill diatoms in a species-specific manner.

Our experiments have shown that the algicidal lifestyle of Ponticoccus is activated only under certain growth conditions, suggesting that a metabolic switch controls pathogenicity of this bacterium. However, we currently do not understand how P. alexandrii causes diatom cell death, what mechanisms govern the switch to a pathogenic lifestyle, or how conserved such mechanisms are across different algicidal bacteria.

This PhD will employ our new model system to i) conduct a range of algal-bacterial co-culture experiments to determine the environmental signalling mechanisms controlling bacterial pathogenicity, ii) employ biochemical and metabolomics approaches to decipher the molecular basis for algicidal activity, iii) examine existing genome and transcriptome datasets to assess the presence and conservation of algicidal pathways in Ponticoccus and other antagonist bacteria.

This work will significantly advance understanding of how environmental factors shape the nature of biotic interactions between marine microbes, and provide important new insight of the molecular mechanisms underlying of such interactions.

By studying the mechanistic basis of antagonistic algal-bacterial interactions, this project could lead to the identification of novel anti-microbials for medicine and biotechnology. Additionally, this work will provide fundamental new insight of environmentally relevant algal-bacterial interactions that are likely a significant driver of ocean carbon cycling.

Finally, this project offers an exciting opportunity to gain training in a broad range of laboratory techniques spanning microbiology, genomics, physiology, metabolism and biochemistry, utilising diverse expertise from the University of Exeter and MBA.

Part Time and Flexible Study Options

Part time study options maybe available please discuss with the supervisor. For further information please see https://www.swbio.ac.uk/project-adjustments-part-time-study-and-flexible-working/

Due to complexities and restrictions associated with visas for part-time studies, we are currently unable to accept part-time international students to the programme.

Entry Requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Masters degree or have significant relevant non-academic experience.

In addition, due to the strong mathematical component of the taught course in the first year and the quantitative emphasis in our projects, quantitative/mathematical experience is needed. This can be demonstrated through one or more of the following:

  • Undertaking units as part of your degree that have a significant quantitative/mathematical component*
  • Maths or Physics A-level (grade B and above)

*Significant mathematical component examples include; maths, statistics, bioinformatics.

Applicants must ensure they highlight their quantitative/mathematical background within their application and to upload any supporting evidence.

To support accessibility to PhD training opportunities, these studentships are only available to applicants that have not previously obtained or about to obtain a PhD degree (or equivalent).

How to apply

The closing date for applications is midnight on Monday, 5 December 2022. Interviews will be held between 1st and 15th February 2023.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email [Email Address Removed].

Project-specific queries should be directed to the primary supervisor.

For further information and to submit an application please visit - https://www.exeter.ac.uk/study/funding/award/?id=4565

Selection Process:

Please note, the studentship selection process will take place in two stages:

1.    The project supervisors will consider your application and may invite you to visit for an informal interview. You can apply for more than one BBSRC SWBio DTP project, although supervisors may take into account your interest and commitment to their particular project. If you apply for multiple projects, please indicate your preferred project choice in your letter of application. Each application for an individual project will be considered separately by the project supervisors.

2.    After closure of applications, each supervisory team will then nominate their preferred applicant. A shortlist will be selected from these nominations and shortlisted applicants will be invited for interview on a selection day at the University of Bristol.  Please note that nomination by a project supervisor therefore does not guarantee the award of a studentship.

For further information please go to - https://www.swbio.ac.uk/programme/selection-process/


Funding Notes

A fully-funded four year SWBio DTP studentship will cover
• a stipend* (at the standard Research Council UK rate; currently £17.668 per annum for 2022-23)
• research and training costs
• tuition fees (at the standard Research Councils UK rate)
• additional funds to support fieldwork, conferences and a 3-month internship
*An enhanced stipend is available for students with a recognised veterinary degree qualification (£24,789 per annum for 2022-2023). There may also be enhanced stipends associated with projects that have a CASE partner (CASE projects are highlighted as *CASE in the project lists).
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