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  Unravelling the mysteries of morphological heterogeneity in bacteria

   Department of Biomedical Sciences

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

About the Project

Project Overview

A number of bacteria can modify their morphology to survive in adverse environmental conditions such as pH, temperature, increased oxygen and antibiotics. They can enter a state known as “viable but non-culturable” (VBNC) which has been defined as an inactive form of life initiated by stressful events or conditions. For example, Campylobacter spp. changes from the characteristic spiral shape in the exponential phase to a coccoid shape in the VBNC state, and Burkholderia pseudomallei and V. cholerae undergo changes from rods during exponential growth to cocci in the VBNC state. During VBNC, metabolic activities, cell wall and membrane composition, gene expression, physical and chemical resistance, adhesion properties and most importantly altering virulence potential. 

While it has been hypothesised that VBNC is an adaptive strategy for long-term survival of bacteria under unfavourable environmental conditions, others suggest that the VBNC state is a transitory stage in the degeneration of bacterial population leading to cell death and is not reversible. The debate is still on-going due to the difficulty in differentiating between the resuscitation of VBNC cells and the normal growth of residual culturable cells in a sample. Moreover, to date, there are no methods to guarantee the complete absence of culturable cells and there are no readily available methods to distinguish between culturable cells that arise from resuscitation and those from normal growth after exposure to the stimuli. 

 In this PhD project, we will study the complexity of VBNC and seek to understand its mechanisms by applying innovative molecular and genomics (including metagenomics and transcriptomics) techniques as well as modern sequencing and bioinformatics to understand the role of morphological changes in bacterial survival in the environment. 


Gweon Lab – Molecular Ecology, Genomics and Bioinformatics: 

We aspire to better understand some of the most challenging questions in the abundance, diversity, activity, and interactions of microbes in a wide range of ecosystems using advanced techniques and technologies. We are fully equipped for state-of-the-art molecular biology, genomics and bioinformatics research and have the capacity of accommodating high-throughput molecular biology research as well processing Big Data using our High-Performance Computing servers dedicated for multi-omics analyses. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of the research being undertaken by the group, we welcome students from a range of backgrounds who are ready for new challenges.  


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. This state-of-the-art facility is purpose-built for science research and teaching. It houses the Cole Museum of Zoology, a café, and social spaces. 

In the School of Biological Sciences, you will be joining a vibrant community of ~180 PhD students representing ~40 nationalities. Our students publish in high-impact journals, present at international conferences, and organise a range of exciting outreach and public engagement activities.  

During your PhD at the University of Reading, you will expand your research knowledge and skills, receiving supervision in one-to-one and small group sessions. You will have access to innovative technology and learn the latest research techniques. We also provide dedicated training in important transferable skills that will support your career aspirations. If English is not your first language, the University's excellent International Study and Language Institute will help you develop your academic English skills. 

The University of Reading is a welcoming community for people of all faiths and cultures.  We are committed to a healthy work-life balance and will work to ensure that you are supported personally and academically. 


Applicants should have a good degree (minimum of a UK Upper Second (2:1) undergraduate degree or equivalent) in science or a related discipline (including mathematics and physics).  Applicants will also need to meet the University’s English Language requirements. We offer pre-sessional courses that can help with meeting these requirements. 


How to apply: 

Apply for a PhD in Biological Sciences at


Further information: 



Dr Soon Gweon, email: , homepage: 

Please view Dr Soon Gweon's academic profile:

Biological Sciences (4)

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.


Vegge, C. S., Jansen van Rensburg, M. J., Rasmussen, J. J., Maiden, M. C. J., Johnsen, L. G., Danielsen, M., MacIntyre, S., Ingmer, H. and Kelly, D. J. (2016) Glucose metabolism via the Entner-Doudoroff pathway in Campylobacter: a rare trait that enhances survival and promotes biofilm formation in some isolates. Frontiers in Microbiology, 7. 01877. ISSN 1664-302X
Gweon, H. S., Shaw, L. P., Swann, J., De Maio, N., AbuOun, M., Niehus, R., Hubbard, A. T. M., Bowes, M. J., Bailey, M. J., Peto, T. E. A., Hoosdally, S. J., Walker, A. S., Sebra, R. P., Crook, D. W., Anjum, M. F., Read, D. S., Stoesser, N. and REHAB Consortium, (2019) The impact of sequencing depth on the inferred taxonomic composition and AMR gene content of metagenomic samples. Environmental Microbiome, 14 (1). 7. ISSN 2524-6372

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