PhD Studentship - Extremophiles everywhere and the limits of microbial life

University of Essex - School of Biological Sciences

Supervisor: Dr Etienne Low-Decarie, University of Essex

Scientific background: Life is almost ubiquitous on Earth: organisms live wherever there is liquid water. However, whether all types of microorganisms can be found everywhere is a longstanding debate, with important implications for the health of humans and their environment. Microbes must be put on the map! Measuring the capacity to grow in extreme conditions is an excellent way to test for the diversity of types found in natural environments.

PhD research experience: Determine the abundance of extremophiles in benign environments. Compare the physiological breadth of organisms found in these benign environments to organisms isolated from extreme environments. The student will conduct field sampling at selected marine and freshwater sites across the UK and at two sites hosting a diversity of extremes (the salt deposits of Boulby Underground Laboratory, UK, including MgCl2-rich brines, and acidic volcanic habitats in Iceland). Serial dilutions of samples from these sites will be cultured in a wide range of extreme conditions (pH, salinity, MgCl2, etc.) in the lab to measure the abundance of extremophiles in these sites. Isolated extremophiles will be characterised using both traditional microbiological techniques and state-of-the-art DNA sequencing approaches. The global applicability of findings from the field and the lab will be investigated using computational approaches to query growing databases of DNA-sequences that have worldwide coverage.

PhD Training: In addition to training as part of EnvEast and the University of Essex graduate training program, which includes training in statistical analysis and science communication, the student will receive training in: field sampling approaches, innovative microbial culturing techniques, high-throughput robotic liquid handling and culture characterisation, molecular techniques for the analysis of DNA sequences and bioinformatics.

Person specification: We seek a highly motivated individual who is enthusiastic about problem solving. The student will have a degree in biology, in a branch of environmental science or in engineering. The student will be enrolled in the PhD program of the School of Biological Sciences of the University of Essex ( and will benefit from professional development through Proficio (

Experience with microbial cultures or sequence analysis would be an asset, as would a valid UK/EU driver’s licence.

You are welcome to contact Dr Etienne Low-Decarie ( with informal enquiries about the project.

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 please visit our webpages

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