PhD Opportunity

The South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership is currently advertising PhD projects. This is a slightly complicated process, but basically comes down to prospective students picking a project offered by scientists working at participating universities and institutions and applying to the program. I (Dr Michiel Vos, m.vos@exeter.ac.uk) offer one of these projects as part of a team of  GW4 colleagues: Dr Mahasweta Saha and Dr. Ruth Airs at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Dr. Chris Lowe at the University of Exeter and in collaboration with the Cornish Seaweed Company. Below the project description:

Background and objectives: Seaweeds underpin some of the most extensive and productive coastal ecosystems globally,responsible for a suite of ecological functions such as the provision of habitats and carbon sequestration. Seaweeds are also superfoods, being a rich source of minerals, vitamins, protein and fibre, and have a commercial impact as seaweed farming is rapidly expanding globally, including in Europe. However, similar to land plants, seaweeds are susceptible to infectious diseases, resulting in major losses to multi-billion-dollar crops as well as having potential ecosystem impacts on natural populations.

Seaweeds are influenced by complex interactions with microbial communities and seaweeds can use an array of infochemicals to communicate with bacteria on their surface and in their surroundings. Seaweeds use this ‘cross-talk’ to defend against pathogens (foes) and attract beneficial bacteria (friends) (Figure 1) ensuring their health and fitness. This chemical ‘language’ can be altered by changing abiotic factors influencing the health and fitness of the seaweed. Using two economically important edible seaweeds, the objective of this PhD project is to understand the ecological drivers of seaweed diseases under different relevant abiotic stressors and find solutions to mitigate or prevent disease. You will test different abiotic regimes to minimize infection of model seaweeds, identify the pro- and anti-microbials, map metabolic information (via metabolomics in collaboration with Prof. S. Prado, Natural History Museum, Paris) and use high throughput sequencing to characterize microbiota of healthy and diseased individuals.

Figure 1: Conceptual diagram illustrating the role of pro-microbials  and anti-microbials in attraction of beneficial epibacteria and deterrence of detrimental bacteria like pathogens. Figure adapted from Schmidt and Saha 2020, New Phytologist.

Training: You will use an interdisciplinary approach combining chemical ecology, microbiology, molecular biology and analytical chemistry. During your PhD, you will develop advanced lab and field research skills plus transferable skills (e.g. infection bioassays, high-throughput sequencing and mass spectrometry) to support a future career in academia or the biotech and agritech industry. You will be also trained in multivariate statistics (in collaboration with Dr P. Somerfield, PML) and cost-benefit analysis (in collaboration with Dr S. Satyendranath, PML) and receive hands on training while working with a seaweed farm (in collaboration with Mr. Tim van Berkel, Cornish Seaweed Company). You will be fully supported to present your work at international conferences, publish high quality research papers and to build your national and international network of collaborations. PML offers a unique environment for PhD students, having the facilities and collaborative groups which are of critical importance for the success of this multidisciplinary project. Here, you would benefit from the nurturing research culture that PML offers in all areas of marine ecology, microbiology, molecular biology, and climate change research.

Person specification: We seek a curious, highly motivated, and self-reliant student, ideally with a biochemical background and interests in commercial exploitation and food security issues.

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