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Unravelling the function of the unusual antioxidant ergothioneine in plants and photosynthetic protists. PhD in Biosciences (SWBio DTP)

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, December 02, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Lead Supervisor
Prof Nicolas Smirnoff, Department of Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors
- Glen Wheeler, Marine Biological Association
- Dr Katherine Helliwell, Department of Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter, EX4 4QJ

Programme Overview
The South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP) is led by the University of Bristol, together with the Universities of Bath, Cardiff and Exeter, alongside Rothamsted Research. This partnership also includes the following collaborative partners; Marine Biological Association (MBA), Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), Swansea University, UCB Pharma, University of the West of England (UWE) and SETsquared Bristol.

These institutions represent a distinctive group of bioscience research staff and students, with established international, national and regional networks, and widely recognised research excellence. As research leaders, we have a strong track record in advancing knowledge through high-quality research and teaching, in partnership with industry and the government.

The programme particularly aims to provide students with outstanding interdisciplinary research training within the following themes:
- Advancing the frontiers of bioscience discovery
- Bioscience for sustainable agriculture and food
- Bioscience for an integrated understanding of health

Importantly this research training is also underpinned by transformative technologies, allowing you to expand the boundaries of your research through innovative tools, technologies and approaches.

For more information about the programme structure, please visit

Funding for 2020/21
These studentships are available to UK and EU nationals who have established UK residency (EU nationals must have ordinarily lived in the UK throughout the three years preceding the start of the studentship).

The four core universities (Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter) have a very limited number of fully-funded four year studentships for EU students who do not meet the residency requirements (1-2 studentships per university)*. Please contact the relevant university for more information.

*These are not available for CASE DTP studentships or Standard DTP studentships with a collaborative partner

Project Description

Plants and algae need antioxidants to protect them reactive oxygen derived from photosynthesis. We have recently discovered that many plants and algae accumulate significant quantities of the metabolite EGT, a potential novel antioxidant, but its role in these organisms is not understood. Ergothioneine (EGT) is a thione/thiol compound derived from the amino acid histidine. It is produced by fungi and some bacteria, including cyanobacteria, and has proposed health benefits in the human diet (indeed, humans have a specific EGT transporter that allows accumulation to high concentration in some tissues). As a potential antioxidant, reacting with various reactive oxygen species, it could be important in protection against environmental stresses. EGT is also more effective at binding potentially toxic metals such as Cu, Ni and Co than its precursor histidine suggesting additional cytoprotective roles. Despite this background, we know rather little about which organisms synthesise EGT and its physiological functions remain elusive.

The overall aims of this project are to investigate the occurrence of EGT in plants, algae and photosynthetic
protists, identify the genes and enzymes involved in its synthesis and, using selected model organisms, produce
mutants with altered EGT to investigate its functions. The project will use a combination of approaches: phylogenetic analysis of gene sequences; expression of candidate genes in E. coli; knockouts in model organisms using CRISPRCas/amiRNA; biochemical and physiological characterisation of EGT deficient mutants and in vitro investigation on EGT protective effects on macromolecules. There is scope for the student to follow routes most suited to their interests.

To be eligible for a fully-funded studentship, you must meet both the academic and residence criteria in line with UKRI guidelines. Please see the following webpage for further details

A fully-funded four year SWBio DTP studentship will cover:

• a stipend* at the standard UKRI rate; currently £15,009 per annum for 2019-2020
• research and training costs
• tuition fees (at the standard UKRI rate)
• additional funds to support fieldwork, conferences and a 3-month internship

Funding Notes

SWBio DTP funded studentship available for September 2020 entry. The studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,009 per annum for 2019-20, on a full time basis.

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