Two fully funded PhD positions available

The rapid growth of human population commands to increase crop yields by 50 – 70 % by 2050 in order to feed the predicted 9 – 10 billion people. Extra food and biofuel production has to be achieved using the shrinking supply of arable land making it a key global challenge that requires ground-breaking innovations and “”thinking outside the box””. One of the innovative solutions for future prosperity of humankind is improved photosynthesis. All food production is based on photosynthesis either directly when growing crops or indirectly when plants used to feed livestock. However, despite being the most important biological process on the planet, photosynthesis is surprisingly inefficient with only 5 % of sun energy received by plants converted into biochemical energy of sugars.

One of the bottle necks of photosynthesis which curbs crop productivity, in particular under high light conditions, is the CO2 fixation catalysed by ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (aka Rubisco).

The Kapralov lab at Newcastle University in collaboration with labs at Northumbria University offers two fully funded PhD positions funded by NERC Doctoral Training Programmes One Planet. You have an exciting opportunity to pick the right ratio of plant science to synthetic biology depending on the project. Both projects will start in October 2020 and will be synergistic to research in collaborators’ labs.

One Planet DTP: Unlocking historic collections to reveal plant adaptations to climate change

Application deadline: 31 January 2020.

How plants adapt to climate change? Can we see accelerated evolution in Anthropocene? How to unlock five centuries worth of historic collections to predict future changes?

Project Description: Plants are pivotal organisms for monitoring and measuring global biodiversity because they comprise a species-rich component of almost all habitats on earth. Due to their unique history, British living plant collections and herbaria harbour most of the global plant diversity as well as data on plant distribution. Surprisingly, these collections are heavily underutilized by a scientific community outside of the field of taxonomy despite increased political and scientific calls to make a better use of them.

The proposed project will use the wealth of public and private collections containing historic samples and living plants (museum herbaria, botanical gardens, and national plant collections) to test the link between carbon and oxygen isotope discrimination signatures and plant physiology, ecology and distribution, as well as past and present climate. The state of the art isotope facilities at Northumbria University will be used for the high throughput analysis of historic samples and living plants available across leading UK institutions (Natural History Museum, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Edinburgh, National plant colections, herbaria at Oxford and Newcastle Universities). Carbon and oxygen isotope discrimination could give information on the photosynthetic type and climate experienced by a plant when grown. Putting this information in the phylogenetic context and combining with bio- and environmental informatics would help to explain current distribution of plant species and physiotypes, and predict how it is going to be affected by climate change.

 We will create a publicly available searchable database of carbon and oxygen isotopes in plants, which would be a valuable tool for scientific community similar to the Plant DNA C-values Database hosted by Kew

Please contact Maxim for more information. 


One Planet DTP: Predicting the effects of increasing soil temperatures on beneficial plant symbionts and plant pathogens through Synthetic Biology.

Application deadline: 31 January 2020.

How will rising global temperatures affect the relationship between plants and their bacterial symbionts? Will the rapid adaptation of key bacterial plant pathogens to increasing soil temperatures increase pathogenesis in slower-to-adapt plant species, or will dormant resistance mechanisms emerge in plants to tackle them? Can we use information obtained to “future proof” important crops?

The rapid increase in global temperature is already affecting the productivity and composition of natural and agricultural ecosystems. It can also change existing relations between key species, e.g. ongoing coral bleaching is triggered by algal endosymbionts of corals leaving the host because of the increased water temperature. Would increasing soil temperatures change relationships between plants and their microbiota in a similar fashion? Both plants and bacteria could adapt to increasing soil temperatures, bacteria however can evolve much faster than plants. Plant pathogens therefore are likely to adapt much quicker to climate change, which could give them a competitive advantage. At the same time, fast-evolving bacterial symbionts of plants could either mitigate or amplify the effects of increased temperature on plant hosts.

This project aims to artificially accelerate the evolution of key plant pathogens and symbionts (e.g. Rhizobia for N2 fixation and auxin-producing bacteria) driven by climate change (increasing soil temperature). This will be achieved using a number of Synthetic Biology approaches to precisely induce mutagenesis and selecting for mutants with improved growth at higher temperatures. We will study the effects on plant hosts when cocultured with these artificially-evolved pathogens and symbionts at increasing temperatures. Environmental and ecological data combined with our findings will allow us to predict what changes will occur in bacteria and engineer plants and their symbionts to better resist the climates of the future.

For more information, please contact Dr Ciarán Kelly ( and Dr Maxim Kapralov (

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