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Award details

Deciphering microalgae – virus interactions. NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Biosciences. Ref: 4295

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Susan Kimmance - Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Additional Supervisors

Prof Mike Allen - College of Life and Environmental Sciences, Exeter University

Dr Adam Monier - Living Systems Institute, Exeter University

Dr Felix Ciceron - Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon.

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:

  • A stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,609 p.a. for 2022/23) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses

Project details

Project Background:

Microalgae are an incredibly diverse and ubiquitous group of photosynthetic organisms which provide more than half of the oxygen on Earth and are responsible for most of the primary production in oceanic and freshwater ecosystems. Many model species are intensively studied in laboratories to shed light on fundamental scientific questions, and many more are used in biotechnology processes to produce a myriad of high valued compounds. The academic and applied interest in microalgae has driven the development of molecular tools and techniques for their genetic transformation. However, whilst synthetic biology-related tools have developed fast, the availability of suitable genetic elements is limited compared to well-established models such as E. coli, yeast, and mammalian cells.

In the oceans, microalgae frequently interact with viruses: viral infections impact species turnover, nutrient recycling, the fate of algal blooms, and the transfer of genetic information. Despite their ecological and economic relevance, very little is known about how microalgae counteract viral infections. Although a wide range of microalgal laboratory cultures are available, we are yet to discover viruses for many of them. In this project, the PhD student will identify novel algal viruses and characterise host-virus interactions, with an emphasis on (1) the interaction between the virus and the cell membrane, (2) the microalgae physiological response at the cellular level, and (3) the identification of genetic elements from the virus (such as promoters, leading sequence, terminator) that may be used in synthetic biology applications.

Project Aims and Methods:

We aim to understand how microalgae interact with viruses during the infection process: Do microalgae have an immune - antiviral - system and if so, how does it impact viral infection? Furthermore, we expect that outputs from the above research questions - the discovery of new viruses, or the molecular compounds from an immune response - can have tremendous benefit and value for research and industry. The interaction between already isolated viruses with key algal species will be characterised by performing infection experiments under laboratory conditions. The viral modulation of the microalgae’s gene expressions pathways will be analysed by transcriptomics. High-speed Atomic Force Microscopy will allow us to study the microalgae-virus membrane interaction. In parallel, environmental sampling of natural seawater will be used to infect a range of selected microalgal strains. When culture lysis is observed, potential viral particles will be characterised using techniques such as flow cytometry and genomics.

Candidate requirements:

For this cross-disciplinary project, we seek a highly motivated candidate with interests in molecular biology, bioinformatics, virology and marine sciences.

Project partners:

Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Exeter university will provide access to state-of-the-art microbiology laboratories. In addition, this project will exploit the Western Channel Observatory to provide the raw biological material for the isolation, screening and characterisation of novel algae and viruses (as well as media prep).

Genomic and transcriptomic sequencing will be conducted at the University of Exeter’s sequencing centre, and bioinformatic analyses will be performed in collaboration with the University of Exeter’s Living Systems Institute.


In addition to laboratory and bioinformatics training, the student will have the opportunity to participate in weekly sampling missions at the Western Channel Observatory, as well as opportunistic oceanographic research cruises.

Useful links:

Prospective applicants:

For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor via and m.allen5@exeter, or check out

For information about the application process please contact the Admissions team via Please note that applications received via other routes including a standard programme application route will not be considered for the studentship funding.


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals.  For further details please see the NERC GW4+ website.

Those not meeting the nationality and residency requirements to be treated as a ‘home’ student may apply for a limited number of full studentships for international students. Although international students are usually charged a higher tuition fee rate than ‘home’ students, those international students offered a NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership full studentship starting in 2022 will only be charged the ‘home’ tuition fee rate (which will be covered by the studentship). 

International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. More information on this is available from the universities you are applying to (contact details are provided in the project description that you are interested in).

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex and you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.

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


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, please see the entry requirements for details.
  • Two references

Reference information
You will be asked to submit two references as part of the application process.  If you are not able to upload  your reference documents with your application please ensure you provide details of your referees.  If you provide contact details of referees only, we will not expect receipt of references until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to the, 7 days prior to the interview dates. Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees 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 1600 hours GMT Friday 10 January 2022. Interviews will be held between 28 February and 4 March 2022.  For more information about the NERC GW4+ DPT please visit

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the lead 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:10th January 2022
Value:£15,609 per annum for 2022-23
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries