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Understanding how electrical communication can regulate metabolic cycles in bacteria biofilms

   Department of Biomedical Engineering

  ,  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Project Overview

A biofilm is a robust form of bacteria colony resistant to antibiotics. They have significant impacts on a multitude of industries impacting health and industrial processes such as in food production and water security. A major barrier to understanding biofilms and their underlying science is that bacteria cells involve cell-to-cell communication as well as changes in metabolic cycles to generate homeostasis in a colony as a whole. Intriguingly, a recent study uncovered bacterial electrical communication in a colony in response to the level of nutrition in the environment. Electrical signals (a potassium wave) emerged from the colony edge, following sensing of the low nutrition level. These electrical signals were assumed to regulate the metabolic cycles of the cells at the centre of the colony in such a way that a whole colony can survive against the low nutrition level.

In neuronal systems, highly-specialised and sophisticated structures are dedicated to signal transmission, such as axons forming networks that relay electrical signals. However, it is unclear how bacterial communities can achieve reliable signal propagation to desired target sites to regulate the metabolic cycles without relying on the sophisticated pathways.. Extracellular DNA (eDNA) and polysaccharides (critical component of the extracellular matrix (ECM)) have been known to protect the resident bacteria from environmental hazards.  We consider that the eDNA and ECM could be a significant candidate for functional components of the electrical signalling pathway. The polymer extracellular matrix is negatively charged and can trap positively-charged potassium ions to possibly guide the ionic waves across a colony.

We hypothesise that individual cells electrically communicate with each other to suppress the metabolic cycles as a whole colony in order to pass sufficient nutrition to the centre and cells actively build up the extracellular matrix which can enable long-range electrical signalling (as if they build up highway networks for transportation).

Aim: Using bacteria colonies, the aim of the study is to understand the relationship between cell-to-cell electrical communication and the resulting metabolic cycles within individual cells.

Recent studies in diverse systems have shown that bioelectrical signals are at the core of cell–cell communication in microbes, plants and animals. Bioelectricity can underpin efficient growth and antibiotic resistance in bacterial biofilms and organisation, morphogenesis and regeneration in mammalian and plant tissues. Through the study of electrical communication at the colony level, we will open up new routes to study metabolism as a bioelectric process regulated by inter-cellular communication.

Research group

Living systems are complex and are based on the basic building blocks of genes, proteins, chemical reactions, and physical forces. Yet, out of this complexity, with remarkable robustness and precision, cells orchestrate the cooperative action of thousands of specific molecular reactions and interactions to carry out certain tasks. We aim to understand such complex biological systems under the concept of self-organization which refers to pattern-formation processes in both physical and biological systems.


Lab home page:


School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading:

The University of Reading, located west of London, England, provides world-class research education programs. The University’s main Whiteknights Campus is set in 130 hectares of beautiful parkland, a 30-minute train ride to central London and 40 minutes from London Heathrow airport. 

Our School of Biological Sciences conducts high-impact research, tackling current global challenges faced by society and the planet. Our research ranges from understanding and improving human health and combating disease, through to understanding evolutionary processes and uncovering new ways to protect the natural world. In 2020, we moved into a stunning new ~£60 million Health & Life Sciences building.


Applicants should have a good degree (minimum of a UK Upper Second (2:1) undergraduate degree or equivalent) in Microbiology, Bioengineering, Biophysics, Applied Physics or a strongly-related discipline. Applicants will also need to meet the University’s English Language requirements. We offer pre-sessional courses that can help with meeting these requirements. With a commitment to improving diversity in science and engineering, we encourage applications from underrepresented groups.

How to apply:

Apply for a PhD in Biomedical Sciences or PhD in Biomedical Engineering at


Further information:



Dr. Yoshikatsu Hayashi, email:

In addition to Dr Hayashi and Dr Barrett, there will also be a supervisor from the University of Warwick, Dr Munehiro Asally.

Funding Notes

We welcome applications from self-funded students worldwide for this project.
If you are applying to an international funding scheme, we encourage you to get in contact as we may be able to support you in your application.


• Stratford, J. , Edwards, C. , Ghanshyam, M. , Malyshev, D. , Delise, M. , Hayashi, Y. , Asally, M. (2019) Electrically induced bacterial membrane-potential dynamics correspond to cellular proliferation capacity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America , 116 (19). pp. 9552-9557. ISSN: 1091-6490 | doi:
• Schofield, Z. , Meloni, G. , Tran, P. , Zerfass, C. , Sena, G. , Hayashi, Y. , Grant, M. , Contera, S. , Minteer, S. , Kim, M. , Prindle, A. , Rocha, P. , Djamgoz, M. , Pilizota, T. , Unwin, P. , Asally, M. , Soyer, O. (2020) Bioelectrical understanding and engineering of cell biology. Journal of the Royal Society Interface , 17 (166). ISSN: 1742-5662 | doi:

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