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Award details

Manipulating Molecular Machines with Light and femtoNewton Forces PhD(Funded) Ref: 4108

About the award


Academic Supervisors:

Professor Frank Vollmer University of Exeter, Living Systems Institute, Streatham Campus, Exeter

This award provides annual funding to cover Home tuition fees and a tax-free stipend.  For students who pay Home 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.

Project Description:

You will undertake the development of an optoelectronic microreactor-system of a new type that combines our single-molecule sensing approach with the ability of manipulating enzyme function in real time. Controlling single-molecule reactions is becoming feasible on optoplasmonic sensors. In this emerging area of optoplasmonics, light is shrunk to the length scale of molecules to probe single-molecule reactions. The light defines the nanoscale sensing and reaction volume thereby isolating for single-molecules. In this project, you will combine the optoplasmonic sensors with an optoelectronic microreactor to control enzyme activity. You will develop an new type of optoelectronic microreactor-system that will have the dual role of a) monitoring the enzymatic reaction in real time and b) exerting control over the reaction pathway. You will use temperature as well as optical gradient forces (optical  tweezers) to manipulate the enzyme activity and the reaction pathways. To achieve this goal, you will use a key component of the optoelectronic microreactor-system, a plasmonic nanoparticle that the enzyme will be attached to. You will use laser light to probe the nanoparticles plasmon resonance to detect the enzyme-substrate complex and its movements and conformational changes in real time. You will use the laser to apply optical forces on to the enzyme using the plasmonic near field enhancements. Applying very small, femtonewton (fN) forces offers the possibility of making some conformational states of the enzyme more likely than others, and this can be used to control enzymatic activity. You will use a secondary laser beam to rapidly cycle the temperature of the nanoparticle and with that implement on/off switch of the overall activity of the enzyme. In the second part of the project you will work in a larger team to apply the enzyme manipulation capabilities to DNA polymerase such as terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase TdT in order to demonstrate a DNA ‘writer’, the de novo synthesis (‘writing’) of DNA.

We are looking for well-motivated students with a passion and strong background in biophysics, single-molecule techniques and optics; ideally the student should also have some experience with plasmonics and/or the use of optical tweezer, and with programming in Labview/Matlab/Comsol.


Frustaci, Vollmer: Whispering Gallery Mode Sensors

Vincent, Subramanian, Vollmer in Nature Communications

Vollmer (Book): Optical Whispering Gallery Modes for Biosensing

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 or technology. 

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.0 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

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)
• Up to two references from referees familiar with your academic work. If your referees prefer, they can email the reference direct to quoting the studentship reference number.
• 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 2nd of May.  Interviews will be held on the University of Exeter Streatham Campus in the following weeks. 
Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor


Application deadline:2nd May 2021
Number of awards:1
Value:Home tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,609 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study.
Duration of award:per year
Contact: STEMM PGR Admissions