Can marine phytoplankton adapt to global warming? NERC GW4+ DTP studentship, PhD in Biosciences (Funded) Ref: 3361

About the award


Lead Supervisor: Professor Gabriel Yvon-Durocher, University of Exeter, Biosciences 

Additional Supervisors:

Colin Brownlee, Marine Biological Association

Jorn Bruggeman, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Location:  University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9FE 

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology,  the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An index-linked stipend for 3.5 years (currently £14,777 p.a. for 2018/19);
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £4,000 for specialist training courses and expenses.

Up to 30 fully-funded studentships will be available across the partnership.

Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend.  Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.

Project details

Whether global warming precipitates a major decline in the ocean’s primary productivity, which supports diverse food webs and drives carbon sequestration, will depend on the ability of marine phytoplankton to adapt to rising temperatures. Unfortunately, we currently understand exceptionally little about whether members of the key groups of marine phytoplankton can adapt quickly enough to keep pace with warming and how the potential for adaptation differs among ecotypes from different regions.

Using experimental evolution, we have recently shown that Thalassiosira pseudonana, one of the most abundant and widely distributed marine diatoms, can rapidly evolve tolerance to levels of warming previously in excess of its thermal optimum.  We found that the evolution of elevated thermal tolerance was linked to adjustments in physiological traits that increase in the fraction of metabolic energy available for allocation to growth (i.e. the carbon-use efficiency). Whether the capacity and mechanisms of rapid adaptation to warming are common in other key groups of marine phytoplankton, which span enormous physiological and evolutionary diversity are unknown but are central to predicting how marine primary productivity will respond to 21st century climate warming.

This studentship will undertake research to address these knowledge gaps by understanding whether and how diverse, geographically distributed isolates of the most abundant, ecologically and biogeochemically important phytoplankton groups (e.g. Bacillariophyceae, Prasinophyceae, Prymnesiophyceae, Prochlorococcales, Synechoccales) adapt to warming. 

Project Aims and Methods

The overarching aim is to develop a mechanistic understanding of the processes that set the limits of thermal tolerance and the potential for evolutionary adaptation to future scenarios of warming in marine cyanobacteria. The student will achieve this by addressing the following objectives:

Objective 1. Characterising the limits of thermal tolerance and the physiological basis of acclimation. We will use an array of algal taxa spanning multiple phyla and with strains from different geographic locations that are known to vary in their thermal tolerance to characterize how the temperature dependence of photosynthesis and respiration and the capacity for physiological acclimation (plasticity) set the limits of thermal tolerance in marine cyanobacteria. [The student will have flexibility in which taxa and strains are used and we as a team will collaborate on taxa and strain selection]. We will measure thermal responses of photosynthesis and respiration over acute and acclimation timescales and couple these measurements with population growth rate estimates to quantify how changes in temperature alter metabolic allocation to growth, repair and maintenance. We will then use these data to develop and parameterise models of cellular physiology that capture patterns of resource allocation that constrain the thermal niches of diverse algal taxa and ecotypes.

Objective 2. Characterising rapid evolution of elevated thermal tolerance. In objective 1 the student will have quantified the physiological constraints that determine the upper limits of thermal tolerance achievable via phenotypic plasticity alone and the processes that set these constraints.  Here we will determine the capacity for, and mechanisms that underpin, genetic adaptation to supra-optimal temperatures using experimental evolution. We will experimentally evolve the isolates characterised in objective 1 under a range of warming scenarios. We will quantify the potential for adaptation by determining fitness improvements in the selected environments and assess the physiological mechanisms underpinning adaptation. 

Objective 3. Infusing rapid evolution into an IPCC-class model of ocean biogeochemistry: implications for future projections of marine primary production.  This work package will translate our understanding of rapid adaptation of thermal tolerance into a 3D model of plankton in the world ocean, run under climate change scenarios. We will develop a computationally-efficient model for adaptation of phytoplankton thermal tolerance and insert this into MEDUSA – the marine biogeochemical component of the UK Earth System Model (UK-ESM). We will embed this in a global ocean model to simulate the evolution of the thermal response and its impact on marine ecosystem functioning under IPCC climate change scenarios.  


The student will develop expertise in environmental microbiology, molecular biology and ecophysiology. This could include field sampling of marine environments and microbial isolation, microbiological and molecular biology techniques, handling and analysis of large datasets, statistics, computational and theoretical modelling, writing and data presentation.

CASE or Collaborative Partner 

Prof Brownlee and Dr Wheeler at the MBA are world-leaders algal cell biology. They will make a major contribution to project by helping to quantify the physiological mechanisms that underpin thermal adaptation among diverse species of marine phytoplankton. They will provide access to their state-of-the art cell biology labs and provide training in confocal microscopy.



Entry requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project

Candidate Requirements

The project would suit a keen microbiologist / evolutionary ecologist with an interest in marine biology.  The ability to carry out careful experiments is very important for this project, while an interest in quantitative analysis and / or cell biology or genomics would be highly desirable. 

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

  • CV
  • Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project.
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current proficiency in English.
  • Two References (applicants are recommended to have a third academic referee, if the two academic referees are within the same department/school).

Reference information
You will be asked to name two referees as part of the application process.  It is your responsibility to ensure that your two referees email their references to, as we will not make requests for references directly; you must arrange for them to be submitted by 7 January 2019

References should be submitted to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 7 January 2019.  Interviews will be held between 4 and 15 February 2019.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the supervisor.


Data Sharing
During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  • the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
  • administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:7th January 2019
Value:£14,777 per annum for 2018-19
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries