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Applications are now open for PhD studentships starting in October 2018. 

Please read the recruitment introduction for more information about eligibility, how to apply, and possibilities for further funding.

The deadline for applications is 8 January 2018.

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LEA-SMITH_UBIO18EE - A molecular study of the importance and scale of cyanobacterial DMSP production.

Project description

Selected other project supervisors:
Dr Jonathan Todd (UEA)
Professor Tracy Lawson (University of Essex)

Dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) is one of Earth’s most abundant organosulfur compounds. It is an anti-stress compound with key roles in global nutrient and sulfur cycling, signalling and climate. It was thought that only marine eukaryotes produce DMSP. However, we recently demonstrated that many marine heterotrophic bacteria also produce DMSP. Furthermore, we identified the first genes for DMSP synthesis in these bacteria.

One cyanobacterium, Trichodesmium erythraeum, also produces DMSP but lacks any known DMSP synthesis genes. Cyanobacteria are amongst the most abundant organisms on the planet, accounting for approximately a quarter of carbon fixation. If marine cyanobacteria synthesise DMSP then this would significantly expand global production of this compound. However, little is known about the environmental importance or scale of cyanobacteria in DMSP cycling and how or why cyanobacteria produce DMSP.

This exciting project will:

  • Determine whether DMSP is synthesised by a wide range of cyanobacteria.
  • Identify the pathway/genes involved in cyanobacterial DMSP production.
  • Study the importance of DMSP production in cyanobacteria and the environment.


You will be trained how to grow and study the physiology and biochemistry of different cyanobacterial species. Using analytical chemistry, you will establish and characterise the cyanobacterial DMSP biosynthetic pathway. Training in genetics will allow you to isolate, validate and express the key DMSP synthesis genes to confirm their role in DMSP production. You will design experiments to discover if environmental conditions affect DMSP production, transcription of the DMSP synthesis genes, and the role of DMSP in environmentally important cyanobacteria. Using bioinformatics and molecular ecology tools, you will establish how widespread cyanobacterial DMSP production is and the abundance/diversity of the key genes in natural marine environments.

This project will help determine the role of marine cyanobacteria in the production of DMSP, a process central to sulfur biogeochemical cycling.

You will receive exceptional training in DMSP biology, growth and genetic manipulation of cyanobacteria, molecular ecology and microbiology, bioinformatics and analytical chemistry, writing high-impact papers and presenting at international conferences. You will undertake research at both UEA and Essex, and learn good laboratory practice, quality assurance, and receive health and safety training.

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the EnvEast NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, comprising the Universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent, with over twenty other research partners. Undertaking a PhD with the EnvEast DTP will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.

Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed by EnvEast on 12/13 February 2018.

Selected candidates who meet RCUK’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - in 2017/18, the stipend is £14,553. Ordinarily, EnvEast studentships are for 3.5 years, although longer awards may be made to applicants from quantitative disciplines who have limited experience in the environmental sciences, to allow them to take appropriate advanced-level courses in the subject area.

In most cases, UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a stipend. For non-UK EU-resident applicants NERC funding can be used to cover tuition fees, RTSG and training costs, but not any part of the stipend. Individual institutes may, however, elect to provide a stipend from their own resources.

This PhD studentship is expected to begin in September/October 2018. Both full-time and part-time study are possible (those planning to study part-time may wish to discuss this with the supervisor before applying).


  1. Curson ARJ, Todd, JD, Sullivan MJ and Johnston AWB (2011). Catabolism of dimethylsulfoniopropionate: microorganisms, enzymes and genes. Nature Reviews Microbiology 9: 849-859.
  2. Curson ARJ, Liu J, Bermejo Martínez A, Green RT, Chan Y, Carrión O, Williams BT, Zhang SH, Yang GP, Page PCB, Zhang XH, Todd JD (2017). Dimethylsulphoniopropionate biosynthesis in marine bacteria and identification of the key gene in this process. Nature Microbiology. 2:17009.
  3. Lea-Smith DJ, Biller SJ, Davey MP, Cotton CAR, Perez Sepulveda BM, Turchyn AV, Scanlan DJ, Smith AG, Chisholm SW, Howe CJ (2015). Major contribution of cyanobacterial alkane production to the ocean hydrocarbon cycle. PNAS 112 (44), 13591-13596.
  4. Lea-Smith DJ, Ross N, Zori M, Bendall DS, Dennis JS, Scott SA, Smith AG, Howe CJ (2013). Thylakoid terminal oxidases are essential for the cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 to survive rapidly changing light intensities. Plant physiology 162 (1), 484-49.
  5. Boatman TG, Lawson T, Geider RJ (2017). A Key Marine Diazotroph in a Changing Ocean: The Interacting Effects of Temperature, CO2 and Light on the Growth of Trichodesmium erythraeum IMS101. PloS ONE.0168796.