PhD Studentship - Quantification of the link between macrofaunal activity and microbial-driven biogeochemical cycling

University of Essex - School of Biological Sciences

Supervisors: Dr Alex Dumbrell, University of Essex, Dr Karen Tait, University of Plymouth

Scientific background: The aim of this project is to quantify the impact of different macrofauna life-style and behaviours on microbial-driven nutrient cycling, and the influence of environmental change on this relationship. Through their burrow-building and irrigation activities, bioturbating macrofauna create the optimum biogeochemical conditions for nitrogen cycling microbes to flourish. This enhances the microbial-driven transformation of nutrients, has a substantial impact on the nitrogen cycle and regulates biological productivity on a global scale. Laboratory studies have often shown the interactions between macrofauna and microbial communities to be dependent on both the species and activity of the burrow builder, making it difficult to extrapolate to complex field situations. More understanding is required of the impact of different macrofaunal species and the influence of animal behaviour on microbial-driven nutrient cycling. The relationship between bioturbator and nitrogen cycling is also susceptible to environmental change. Changes to temperature, pH, oxygen and eutrophication can impact nitrogen cycling through a change in bioturbator behaviour.

PhD research experience: With guidance from the supervisory team, the PhD student will design and implement a series of mesocosm experiments that will explore the impact of a) different macrofauna bioturbation life-styles (e.g. burrow shape, sediment reworking, bioirrigation and feeding styles), b) behaviours (e.g. time spent irrigating, feeding and burrow building and maintaining) and c) environmental change on nitrogen cycling using the latest molecular microbial ecology and biogeochemical techniques.

Training: The student will be hosted at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (Supervisors: Karen Tait, Steve Widdicombe, Ana Queiros and Vassilis Kitidis) and registered at the University of Essex (Supervisor: Alex Drumbell). Alongside access to the comprehensive personal and professional development training provided by the ENVEAST DTP programme, thorough training in all methods and techniques will be provided, including experimental design, molecular microbial ecology (DNA/RNA extraction, quantitative PCR, Illumina MiSeq), measurements of nitrification, denitrification and anammox rates, image analyses, bioinformatics and statistical analyses of complex data sets. The student will be required to attend a Sea Survival Course for the collection of animals for experiments.

Person specification: The ideal candidate will have a good Honours or Masters degree (e.g. 2.i. or above) in a relevant subject.

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the EnvEast NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, comprising the Universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent, with twenty other research partners.

Shortlisted applicants will be invited to an interview day on the 14th or 15th February 2017.

Funding: Successful candidates who meet RCUK’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship. In most cases, UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award. In 2016/17, the stipend was £14,296

For further information, please visit

Closing date for this application is midnight 8th January 2017. Please apply online via

For general information about the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex please visit our webpages

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South East England