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WR DTP project: Gaming the system: how bacterial pathogens steal food from commensals

Department of Biology

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Prof G H Thomas , Prof A J Wilkinson No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
York United Kingdom Biochemistry Microbiology Structural Biology

About the Project

The mammalian gut is a complex environment where communities of bacteria live together creating a robust microflora that protects us from infections. Invading pathogens need to somehow interfere in these relationships to gain access to nutrients otherwise used by the commensals. One important nutrient for gut bacteria is sialic acid, which is provided by the host in the mucin layer that lines the gut. One gut commensal has evolved a unique mechanism to liberate sialic in a novel anhydro- form that only it can use (Bell et al., 2019 Nature Microbiology 4:2393-2404).

In this project, the student will test the hypothesis that other bacterial pathogens have got smart to this ‘unique’ mechanism, by evolving routes to scavenge the anhydro-sialic acid for themselves to enable them to colonise the gut. The project will use a biochemical, structural and microbiological method to characterise these systems to understand if these pathogens can really ‘game the system’. The work extends a collaboration with the Juge group (Quadrum Institute, Norwich) where the anhydro-sialic acid process was discovered and gives the student access to the York Structural Biology lab.

The White Rose DTP in Mechanistic Biology is committed to recruiting extraordinary future scientists regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or career pathway to date. We understand that commitment and excellence can be shown in many ways and have built our recruitment process to reflect this. We welcome applicants from all backgrounds, particularly those underrepresented in science, who have curiosity, creativity and a drive to learn new skills.

Funding Notes

This project is part of the BBSRC WR DTP in Mechanistic Biology. Appointed candidates will be fully-funded for 4 years. The funding includes:
Tax-free annual UKRI stipend (£15,285 for 2020/21)
UK tuition fees (£4,473 for 2021/22)
Research support and training charges (RSTC)
We aim to support the most outstanding applicants from outside the UK and are able to offer a limited number of bursaries that will enable full studentships to be awarded to international applicants. These full studentships will only be awarded to exceptional quality candidates, due to the competitive nature of this scheme.


ENTRY REQUIREMENTS: Students with, or expecting to gain, at least an upper second class honours degree, or equivalent, are invited to apply. The interdisciplinary nature of this programme means that we welcome applications from students with backgrounds in any biological, chemical, and/or physical science, or students with mathematical backgrounds who are interested in using their skills in addressing biological questions. If English is not your first language, you will need to meet the minimum entry requirements for your country. Please check our website:

START DATE: 1st October 2021
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