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Vita in Extremis - Life at the Extremes

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr B Graham, Dr Julianne Megaw  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

The search for extra-terrestrial life on Mars and other planets has benefitted from the exploration of extreme environments on Earth. This study will investigate extremophile microorganisms such as those belonging to the Halobacteriaceae family. These microorganisms have adapted to life at high salt concentrations, which are similar to hypersaline brines found on Mars. We will investigate these organisms utilising a number of modern proteomic and cutting edge mass spectrometry techniques to gain a better understanding of the growth and survival of these intriguing organisms, helping us shed light not only on whether the Earth is the only home to life in the cosmos but also their role in the health of the planet.

The search for extra-terrestrial life on Mars has benefitted immensely from the exploration of extreme Earth environments as model systems. These environs emulate the environments that microorganisms on Mars may experience. Exploration of the Martian surface has shown that acidic, saline liquid water was intermittently available on ancient Mars. Analysis of Meridiani planium suggest that surface water here would have had a sustained water activity ≤ 0.78 to 0.86. These values are too low for survival for all but a few terrestrial extremophiles. Therefore, it is critical that organisms wishing to survive on Mars are able to tolerate these rich brines with low water activity. Such an environment would only be habitable by halophilic or halotolerant microorganisms. Examples of terrestrial systems with extreme hypersaline content include the Dead Sea and the Great Salt Lake. One set of organisms that flourish here are the Archaea, the most abundant Archaea halophiles are the members of the family Halobacteriaceae. Halophilic microorganisms are well suited to survival under current and past conditions on Mars. These extreme halophiles represent attractive models for astrobiology studies. Far from being rare extremophiles, the Archaea represent a significant component of the plant and soil microbiome. As such, they are central to biogeochemical nutrient cycling and essential for planetary health.

To date, there have been no comprehensive studies of the proteomic and post genomic changes that occur in the growth of Halophiles on salt rich brines, mimicking the Martian surface chemistry. With this in mind we will investigate the biochemistry, in the first instance of the model archaeon Haloferax volcanii, in addition to other members of the Halobacteriaceae and bacterial halophiles, grown on brine containing different concentrations of magnesium perchlorate hexahydrate, a major form of perchlorate expected to exist in Martian soil. Understanding how these model halophiles manifest perchlorate tolerance may offer a new model to aid in our understanding of the biochemistry that may be used by exo-extremophiles on Mars.

Start Date: 1 October 2022

Duration: 3 years

How to apply: Applications must be submitted via

Skills/experience required: Experience of the culturing micro-organisms. Work with extremophiles would be beneficial. Full training in mass spectrometry will be provided.

Funding Notes

Candidates must hold a UK 2.1 Bachelor's degree or qualifications considered to be equivalent by the University.
Candidates must also be normally resident in the UK for the three year period prior to 1 October 2022. For non-EU nationals, the main purpose of residence must not have been to receive full-time education. Non-UK or Irish nationals must also have pre-settled or settled status (EU nationals) or settled status (non-EU nationals).
Full eligibility criteria:
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