University of Exeter funding: Novel tools to unravel phosphate se

Novel tools to unravel phosphate sensing in marine diatoms, Biosciences – PhD (Funded) Ref: 3923

About the award


Dr Katherine Helliwell (University of Exeter and Marine Biological Association)

Dr Adam Monier (University of Exeter)


Marine Biological Association, Plymouth.

The University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences, in partnership with Marine Biological Association, is inviting applications for a fully-funded PhD studentship to commence in late September 2020 or as soon as possible thereafter.  For eligible students the studentship will cover UK/EU tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,285 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study. The student would be based primarily at the Marine Biological Association, but will also spend time in Biosciences in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Streatham Campus in Exeter for training and certain research activities.


Project Description:

Diatoms are a globally important algal group, responsible for an estimated 20% of CO2 fixation on Earth. Diatoms have a fundamentally different evolutionary history from plants and animals, giving rise to a vast array of unexplored biology. Their unique metabolic attributes, coupled with recent advances in diatom genomics and molecular biology, have moreover cemented these organisms as attractive hosts for algal biotechnology. However, despite their importance, many basic aspects of diatom biology remain poorly understood.

This project will build on our recent advances in understanding how diatoms perceive the important macronutrient phosphorus. We have discovered that diatoms have evolved a novel Ca2+-dependent signalling pathway for sensing and coordinating rapid physiological responses to phosphorus availability (Helliwell et al., Furthermore, we have established cutting-edge live-cell imaging approaches to examine real-time intracellular phosphate status of single diatom cells, via a new fluorescent biosensor. These advances, coupled with state-of-the-art gene-editing approaches, provide a unique opportunity to unravel P sensing mechanisms in this important group of algae. This project will employ a range of novel molecular biology and microscopy approaches to address the following objectives:

1. Characterise the role of candidate genes of the novel P-Ca2+ signalling pathway, via CRISPR-Cas9 gene knockout and protein localisation studies.
2. Employ new genetically-encoded phosphate biosensor to measure phosphate homeostasis in single diatom cells with high spatiotemporal resolution for the first time
3. Examine the functional and ecological roles of P-Ca2+ signalling, via field sampling of natural diatom populations from the Western Channel Observatory. The broader evolution of P-Ca2+ signalling will also be investigated.

Training opportunities: The project offers extensive and wide-ranging training including in algal biology and microbiology (cell culture, growth and physiology), molecular biology (PCR, algal genetic engineering, CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing), cutting-edge microscopy techniques (confocal, FRET imaging and analysis), bioinformatics and core training in verbal/written communication. The student will be encouraged to present their illuminating findings at national and international conferences.
The student will also have the opportunity to participate as an associate member in the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Programme.
This award provides annual funding to cover UK/EU tuition fees and a tax-free stipend.  For students who pay UK/EU tuition fees the award will cover the tuition fees in full, plus at least £15,285 per year tax-free stipend.  Students who pay international tuition fees are eligible to apply, but should note that the award will only provide payment for part of the international tuition fee and no stipend. 
The collaboration with the named project partner is subject to contract.  Please note full details of the project partner’s contribution and involvement with the project is still to be confirmed and may change during the course of contract negotiations.  Full details will be confirmed at offer stage.

Entry requirements

Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science (biosciences, plant sciences, marine biology, microbiology). 
If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.5 in IELTS and no less than 6.0 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable (see


How to apply

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents. 
• 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)
• Names of two referees familiar with your academic work. You are not required to obtain references yourself. We will request references directly from your referees if you are shortlisted.
• If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English.
The closing date for applications is midnight on 04/08/2020. Interviews will be held on the week commencing 10/08/2020.
If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone: 0300 555 60 60 (UK callers) +44 (0) 1392 723044 (EU/International callers).  Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor.


Application deadline:4th August 2020
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Admissions