A DNA-metal nanoparticle metamaterial for improved single-molecule biosensing (PhD in Physics/Engineering) Ref: 3366

About the award

This project is subject to funding decision by EPSRC:

We are currently awaiting a decision from EPSRC regarding an application for a Centre for Doctoral Training in Functional and Meta- Materials (2019-2027) which will build on our expertise in Doctoral Training gained through the CDT in Metamaterials (XM²) since 2014.  A funding decision is expected by January 2019.
The successful applicant will join the new CDT programme if Exeter succeeds in its bid.

For eligible students the 4 year studentship (value approx. £94,000) will cover UK/EU tuition fees, plus an annual tax-free stipend at the UKRI national minimum doctoral level (£14,777 for 2018), enhanced by £250 per year, or pro rata for part-time study, plus a Research and Training Support Grant (RTSG) of £13,000. Tuition fees and RTSG only for international students.

XM² now has over 80 post graduate researchers.  Its aim is to undertake world-leading research, while training scientists and engineers with the relevant research skills and knowledge, and professional attributes for industry and academia.

Please visit www.exeter.ac.uk/metamaterials for more information about the current CDT and an indication of what to expect.

This studentship will be based in the departments of Physics and Engineering on the Streatham Campus in Exeter. 

Joint supervisors: Prof C Soeller, Prof F Vollmer

External supervisor: Dr L Di Michele (Cambridge)

Statement of Research

Nanoparticles are widely used as environmental sensors in health applications, and in novel materials that catalyse reactions and produce clean energy. In these applications, it is critical to understand and control the interaction of molecules near nanoparticle surfaces. To understand the underlying mechanisms, a new approach is required, combining spatial information with readout of the rapid dynamics of many biomolecular interactions. This approach should allow the study of individual molecules so that they can be detected and monitored with extraordinary sensitivity and at the same time we want to see where these molecules are when they interact with the sensor and their molecular reaction partners.

Based on this motivation the studentship will establish a novel single-molecule imaging and sensing platform to study biomolecular interactions at nanoparticle surfaces at unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution. The combination of fluorescence imaging with single molecule sensing will enable localising (bio)molecular interactions with nanometre precision and widely adjustable read-out with nanosecond to hour time resolution. The analysis of the rich data obtained with this new methodology will enable us to develop strategies to control reaction dynamics and protein function directly at nanoparticle interfaces. In addition, the combination of DNA and gold nanoparticles constitutes a new metamaterial, i.e. a material that combines characteristics from the constituent materials (DNA and gold) in a novel way to give it entirely new properties. We will study the metamaterial properties of the DNA-gold nanoparticle composite and explore its use in biotechnology applications in collaboration with colleagues from the biosciences.

The project is a collaboration between the laboratories of Profs Soeller and Vollmer at the Living Systems Institute of the University of Exeter as well as Dr Di Michele (Cambridge). In the project, we will attach rigid DNA nanoscaffolds, known as DNA Origami, to gold nanoparticles to present reaction partners at precise distances from the particle surface. We will map reaction kinetics as a function of surface distance by placing binding sites at locations along the DNA scaffold. The new approach builds on the expertise of the Vollmer laboratory with gold nanoparticle plasmonics1-3 and the Soeller and Di Michele laboratories’ expertise in high-resolution imaging and DNA nanotechnology4-6.

The highly cross-disciplinary project bridging optics, biophysics, and biomaterials will be carried out at the Exeter Living Systems Institute, the ideal environment to explore future healthcare and biotechnology applications with the new technology. The candidate will receive training in single molecule biophysics, optical super-resolution imaging and single molecule sensing. The successful candidate will also make regular visits to the Di Michele Laboratory in Cambridge to advance their skills in DNA nanotechnology.


Figure 1 A. The use of fluorescence super-resolution imaging is key to localising molecules precisely on the DNA oregami scaffold where it binds at a precisely chosen distance from the gold nanoparticle surface. Advanced super-resolution imaging allows localising the molecule with nanometer precision. B. Schematic of the plasmon and whispering galley mode based single molecule sensor. The sensing site is on the gold nanoparticle and the DNA oregami scaffold allows precise placement of the reaction site. We can probe the reaction both with and without a dye label on the binding partner to estimate the effect of the label on the recorded sensor signal.


  • Subramanian et al. Adv Mater 2018.
  • Kim, Baaske, Vollmer. Adv Mater 2016;28:9941.
  • Baaske, Vollmer. Nat Phot 2016;10:733.
  • Lutz T, Clowsley AH, Lin R, et al. Nano Res 2018;78:993.
  • Jayasinghe I, Clowsley AH, Lin R, et al. Cell Reports 2018;22:557–67.
  • Di Michele L, Varrato F, Kotar J, et al. Nat Commun 2013;4:2007.

About us 

Exeter has a well-established and strong track record in functional materials and metamaterials research, spanning a unique mix of interests in our focus areas:

  • Acoustic, Phononic and Fluidic Metamaterials
  • Microwave and RF Metamaterials and Devices
  • Nanocomposites and Manufacturing
  • Photonic and Plasmonic Materials
  • Soft Matter, Biomaterials and Sensors
  • Spintronics, Magnonics and Magnetic Materials
  • Theory and Modelling to drive Targeted Material and Device Design
  • Two Dimensional Electronic and Photonic Materials

Exeter is amongst the top 150 universities worldwide according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the most influential global league table.
Functional Materials (from fundamentals to manufacturing) is one of 5 key themes supported by the UoE as part of its £320 million Science Strategy investing in staff and facilities. This theme has benefitted from the appointment of 23 new academics (including 7 full professors) along with £20m of investment in research infrastructure (including 3 new electronics/photonics clean-rooms, a graphene engineering laboratory, a nano-functional materials fabrication suite, a materials characterisation suite).

This is in parallel to significant external capital investment in our research including over £2m of equipment funding from the EPSRC/HEFCE SIA award (Exeter-Bath Centre for Graphene Science), the £2.6m ERDF-EADS funded Exeter Centre for Additive Layer Manufacture (CALM); £1.1, for Exeter’s EPSRC Time-Resolved Magnetism Facility; £1.2m for equipment funding from the EPSRC Graphene Engineering Call. Such investments ensure that we have, in-house, all the state-of-the-art materials, fabrication and characterisation facilities required by our PGRs.

Our research and PhD training experience, expertise, facilities and network makes the University of Exeter one of the very best places to pursue postgraduate and early career research.

How to apply

Application criteria

During the application process you will need to upload the documents listed below. Please prepare these before starting the application process.

  • An academic CV;
  • A cover letter outlining your research interests in general, the title of the project you are applying for;
  • A Personal Statement consisting of two parts*:
  1. Describe a) why you would like to study for a PhD, b) why you would like to focus on this particular topic, c) any relevant expertise and d) your future career ambitions;

  2. Describe the qualities that you believe will make you a great researcher (in particular as part of a team).

  •  Degree transcript(s) giving information about the qualification awarded, the modules taken during the study period, and the marks for each module taken;

You will be asked to provide the contact details of two academic referees.

* We foster creativity and utilisation of individual strengths. Applicants are encouraged to provide evidence to support their statements. This might include conventional written documents (e.g. examples of work), but we also encourage alternatives such as audio or video recordings, websites, programming etc. Please ensure to include accessible links to such files in an appropriately named document as part of the upload process.

Application procedure

Shortlisting and interviews

Applications will be reviewed by at least two academic members of staff.

Candidates will be short-listed against a set of agreed criteria to ensure quality while maintaining diversity. Failure to include all the the elements listed above may result in rejection.

The essential criteria:

  •     Undergraduate degree in a relevant discipline (minimum 2:1);
  •     Vision and motivation (for research & professional development);
  •     Evidence of the ability to work collaboratively and to engage in a diverse community;
  •     Evidence of excellent written and oral skills in English.

The highest quality candidates will also be able to demonstrate one of more of the following:

  •     Specialist knowledge about one or more of the 8 research areas listed above;
  •     Training in research methodology (e.g. undergraduate research projects);
  •     Research outputs (e.g. papers) and/or other indicators of academic excellence (e.g. awards).

Shortlisted candidates will be invited to an entry interview to assess whether they are suited to the CDT concept. The panel will normally consist of 3 people, including members of the CDT's Strategic Leadership Team and a current postgraduate researchers or post-doc in Physics or Engineering. If the applicant is successful, a second interview will take place to assess academic skills and fit to the project by the project supervisors.

Interviews are expected to start in the second half of January 2019.

Please email metamaterials@exeter.ac.uk if you have any queries about this process.


Application deadline:30th April 2019
Number of awards:1
Value:Approx. £94,000 for 48 months (pro-rata for part-time study): covers UK/EU tuition fees, annual tax-free stipend at UKRI minimum doctoral level (£14,777 for 2018) plus £250 per year, plus £13,000 RTSG. International students: fees & RTSG only.
Duration of award:per year
Contact: Prof. Alastair Hibbins (Admissions Tutor) metamaterials@exeter.ac.uk