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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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MCGENITY_E18EE - How and why bacteria produce the abundant, climate-active gas, isoprene

Project description

Selected other supervisors:
Dr Mike Hough (University of Essex)
Dr Jonathan Todd (University of East Anglia)
Dr Boyd McKew (University of Essex)

Scientific Background
Isoprene is a reactive five-carbon biological volatile organic compound (BVOC) that is abundantly released into the atmosphere. It affects climate in diverse and often detrimental ways, such as extending the lifetime of the greenhouse gas, methane. Many plants produce isoprene, which protects them against thermal and oxidative stress, and in some cases serves as a signalling molecule.  

Some Bacteria produce isoprene, for example most Bacillus species and some marine Bacteria from different phyla. The key enzyme in the formation of isoprene, isoprene synthase, has been identified only in plants, and no enzyme with a similar sequence has been found in Bacteria.

Therefore, this project provides the platform for making important discoveries that will improve our understanding of isoprene production in organisms of great environmental and biotechnological importance.


  1. Determine the role of isoprene production in Bacteria
  2. Identify and characterize the key enzyme(s) responsible for bacterial isoprene synthesis
  3. Determine the extent to which Bacteria contribute to global production of isoprene

The PhD student will gain experience in:

  • Isolating and characterizing isoprene-producing microbes from different environments
  • Designing experiments to identify the environmental factors that lead to enhanced/reduced isoprene production
  • Identifying proteins that are up-regulated when isoprene is being abundantly produced (using proteomics)
  • Identifying and confirming the function of the gene(s) coding for bacterial isoprene synthase(s) and determining their global distribution (using a combination of molecular genetics and bioinformatics)


Person Specification and Training
This is an exciting opportunity for a highly motivated student with a background in Microbiology or other relevant disciplines. The PhD will be based primarily at the University of Essex, with opportunities to work in the University of East Anglia (UEA). Specifically, the student will receive training in the above, diverse and state-of-the-art methods by the project team (e.g. A&B – Terry McGenity (Essex); C – Boyd McKew, Mike Hough (Essex); D – Jonathan Todd (UEA).

The student will be expected to influence the direction of the project depending on their interests and preceding results.  We support and encourage training in advanced and transferrable skills in preparation for a successful career.

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 AR, Liu J, Bermejo Martinez A, Green RT, Chan Y, Carrión O, Williams BT, Zhang S-H, Yang G-P, Bulman Page PC, Zhang X-H, Todd JD (2017). Dimethylsulfoniopropionate biosynthesis in marine bacteria and identification of the key gene in this process. Nature Microbiology 2: 17009
  2. El Khawand M, Crombie AT, Johnston A, Vavlline DV, McAuliffe JC, Latone JA, Whited GM, McGenity TJ, Murrell JC (2016) Isolation of isoprene degrading bacteria from soils, development of isoA gene probes and identification of the active isoprene degrading soil community using DNA-stable isotope probing. Environmental Microbiology 18: 2743-2753.
  3. Exton DA, Suggett DJ, McGenity TJ, Steinke M (2013) Chlorophyll-normalized isoprene production in laboratory cultures of marine microalgae and implications for global models. Limnology and Oceanography 58: 1301-1311.
  4. Exton DA, Suggett DJ, Steinke M, McGenity TJ (2012) Spatial and temporal variability of biogenic isoprene emissions from a temperate estuary. Global Biogeochemical Cycles 26: GB2012.
  5. McKew BA, Metodieva G, Raines CA, Metodiev MV, Geider RJ (2015) Acclimation of Emiliania huxleyi (1516) to nutrient limitation involves precise modification of the proteome to scavenge alternative sources of N and P. Environmental Microbiology 17: 4050-4062.