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Award details

Investigating ‘cross-talk’ between pathogenic Vibrio and phytoplankton, and implications for human health under climate change. NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Biosciences. Ref: 4297

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Mahasweta Saha - Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Marine Ecology and Biodiversity

Additional Supervisors

Dr Shubha Sathyendranath - Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Remote Sensing

Dr Robert Brewin - Physical Geography, University of Exeter, Penryn, Cornwall

Dr Craig Baker-Austin - CEFAS

Prof. Georg Pohnert - Max Plank Institute for Chemical Ecology

Location: Plymouth Marine Laboratory (primary location) and Penryn Campus, University of Exeter, Penryn, Cornwall.

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 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

Fig1: Infochemicals/signalling molecules (red shadow) drive aquatic interactions including phytoplankton-bacteria interaction (Saha et al. 2019)

Fig1: Infochemicals/signalling molecules (red shadow) drive aquatic interactions including phytoplankton-bacteria interaction (Saha et al. 2019)

Fig2: Phycosphere of phytoplankton (upper image) and Thalassiosira sp. (lower image)

Fig2: Phycosphere of phytoplankton (upper image) and Thalassiosira sp. (lower image)

Project Background:

Communication amongst humans allows us to live together in societies. Breakdowns in communication can lead to conflicts and a breakdown of society's structures. However, communication is not limited to humans. Chemical cues and signals, collectively called infochemicals (Fig. 1), are widely used by organisms living on land and sea to communicate between individuals within a species or between different species. For example, albatrosses use a simple chemical cue called DMS (dimethyl sulphide) to track highly productive areas where they forage on zooplankton, squid, fish, and even other birds!

We know from terrestrial ecosystems that climate change stressors such as warming can alter the production and composition of infochemicals with profound negative effects on natural ecosystems. Although this chemical communication currently works well in the ocean, we do not know how marine organisms will communicate under climate change!Phytoplankton, the producers of 50% oxygen we breathe, also use infochemicals to ‘talk’ to other organisms like  microbes, including pathogens such as Vibrio which can be either deterred or attracted towards phytoplankton.  Several Vibrio species are human pathogens known to cause waterborne diseases, e.g. Vibrio cholerae responsible for cholera. Climate change is predicted to escalate this problem, posing increased threat to human health.

In this project you will conduct a novel set of experiments underpinning phytoplankton-Vibrio relationships mediated by infochemicals, and explore how climate change induced stressors such as temperature, salinity and  precipitation might change phytoplankton-Vibrio interactions. Results  will  enable  us  to  understand dynamics  of phytoplankton-pathogenic marine bacteria interaction, in particular microbes such as Vibrios that represent an emerging disease threat in Europe and other higher latitudes, driven by climate change.

Project Aims and Methods:

The chemically enriched phycosphere (Fig 2), the microscale mucous region enveloping phytoplankton cells, represents the marketplace where interactions between algae and other organisms are controlled by exuded chemicals. In  this  PhD, you will undertake pioneering research to establish how the association of Vibrio with phytoplankton are controlled by infochemicals. You will work at the interface of ecology, microbiology, chemistry, physiology and climate change research investigating novel questions  such  as (i) which infochemicals enable positive and negative ‘cross-talk’ of phytoplankton with selected Vibrio species; (ii) how the entire chemical landscape appears during such associations; and (iii) how such  association changes in response to climate-change-induced  stressors.

You will work in a highly interdisciplinary international team (UK and Germany) and use different advanced techniques to isolate anti- and pro-Vibrio compounds from phytoplankton cultures and will be trained to use different spectroscopy methods. You will collaborate with Georg Pohnert (Max Plank Institute of Chemical Ecology, Germany) to use latest ‘omics’ techniques such as untargeted whole cell and single cell metabolomics. You will also perform laboratory incubations to quantify the effect of stressors such as mean temperature rise on  the Vibrio-phytoplankton association. Data will be analyzed using multivariate statistics. You will be allowed freedom and flexibility to modify the project design and direction, depending on your interests and skills, within the broad scope of the project’s aims.

Candidate requirements:

This project would suit a curious, highly motivated, pro-active, and self-reliant student. A biology/chemical background with interests in marine chemical, phytoplankton and microbial ecology would be ideal. You should have at least a 2:1 Bachelor degree in a marine/environmental science.

Project partners:

Project will be primarily based at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML). PML will offer you the experience of working in a world-leading marine research laboratory and access to facilities such as climate-controlled rooms, suite of analytical and microbiology facilities and equipment essential for the project. PML also hosts various seminars, training workshops and has a mentoring scheme in place. The University of Exeter is a research-led university, ranked in the top 10 in the UK and in the top 200 worldwide, and is a member of the UK’s Russell Group of leading research-intensive universities. The Centre for Geography and Environmental Science located in Penryn, Cornwall, where co-supervisor Dr Bob Brewin is based, has a vibrant academic community, and focuses on innovative teaching and cutting-edge research on humans’ impact on the natural world.

You will have access to research facilities, opportunities to attend academic departmental seminars, and to network with other academics and PhD students in the department. As both the UK national reference laboratory and the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) reference laboratory for shellfish sanitation, CEFAS encompasses a wealth of experience in pathogenic marine Vibrio research.


You will develop advanced research skills plus transferable skills and will be mentored by a committed team of supervisors to develop yourself into a future research leader supporting a future career in academic research/teaching or the biotech industry. You will collaborate with a dynamic team of scientists at PML, University of Exeter and CEFAS, as well as collaborate with Max Plank Institute of Chemical Ecology (Germany), the topmost chemical ecology research institute in the world. You will present your findings via high-profile international conferences, outreach activities, and in high quality journals in addition to your PhD thesis.

Background reading and references: 

Saha, M. et al. Front. Ecol. Environ. 1–8 (2019). doi:10.1002/fee.2113

Seymour, J. R., et al. Nature Microbiology (2017). doi:10.1038/nmicrobiol.2017.65

Useful links:

Prospective applicants:

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