Dr Michael Cunliffe

Dr Michael Cunliffe

Associate Professor in Marine Microbiology

School of Biological and Marine Sciences (Faculty of Science and Engineering)



  • Programme Lead MRes Marine Biology (2017- )
  • MBA-based coordinator of the MResMarine Biology programme (2014-2017)
  • MRes Marine Biology 
  • MBAM5107Molecular and Cellular Marine Biology (Module Lead)
  • MBAM5106Advanced Marine Biology (Module Lead)
  • MBAM5108Ecology and Conservation (Module Lead)
  • BSc Marine Biology programmes 
  • MBIO322Marine Microbiology - Ecology and Applications (Module lead 2017- )


  • Associate Professor in Marine Microbiology (Joint Appointment with MBA) School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth
  • MBA Senior Research Fellow (Principal Investigator/Group Leader) Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom
  • Honorary Senior Lecturer, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia 
  • Lecturer in Marine Microbiology (Joint Appointment with MBA) School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth MBA Research Fellow (Principal Investigator/Group Leader) Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom Postdoctoral Research Associate
  • School of Biological Sciences, University of Warwick


  • Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP), University of Plymouth PhD Microbiology, University of Manchester
  • MSc Pollution and Environmental Control, University of Manchester
  • BSc (Hons) Environmental Biology, University of Liverpool

Professional membership

  • International Society for Microbial Ecology (ISME)
  • Society for General Microbiology (SGM)
  • Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom (MBA)



Teaching interests

I have a student-centred approach to teaching and a passion for research-informed teaching. I work across all levels, from the foundation year to postgraduate. My major teaching interests are in marine microbiology, marine biology, ecology and diversity. 

MRes Marine Biology – various lectures, tutorials, practicals and assignments:

  • MBAM5106 Advanced Marine Biology (ModuleLead)
  • MBAM5107 Molecular and Cellular Marine Biology (ModuleLead)
  • MBAM5108 Ecology and Conservation (ModuleLead)

BSc Marine Biology programmes – various lectures, tutorials, assignments and exams:

  • MBIO322 Marine Microbiology - Ecology and Applications (Module lead)
  • MBIO341 Biological Oceanography
  • MBIO001 Issues in Marine Biology
  • MBIO120 Introduction to Marine Biology
  • MBIO162 Biodiversity

Staff serving as external examiners

PhD External Examiner 

  • GEOMAR/Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Kiel, Germany
  • Scottish Association for Marine Science/University of the Highlands and Islands
  • University of Warwick
  • University of Essex
  • Linnaeus University, Kalmar, Sweden



Research interests

I lead a research group studying the biology and ecology of microorganisms, understanding their diversity and functional roles in marine ecosystems.

The interdisciplinary research group combines a range of approaches to study microorganisms both in the field and laboratory. The group take part in open ocean research cruises as well as working with model microorganisms in the lab. A major focus of the group is to understand the biological mechanisms that underpin important biogeochemical processes conducted by marine microorganisms.

Current research includes:

  • Marine fungal ecology
  • Microbial ecology in the changing Arctic Ocean
  • Application of environmental DNA (eDNA) approaches to understand marine diversity
  • Biology and evolution of aquatic fungi
  • Particulate organic matter
  • Microbial Symbioses



Key publications

Key publications are highlighted

Abreu A, Bourgois E, Gristwood A, Troublé R, Acinas SG, Bork P, Boss E, Bowler C, Budinich M & Chaffron S (2022) 'Priorities for ocean microbiome research' Nature Microbiology 7, (7) 937-947 , DOI
Bonthond G, Barilo A, Allen RJ, Cunliffe M & Krueger-Hadfield SA (2022) 'Fungal endophytes vary by species, tissue type, and life cycle stage in intertidal macroalgae' Journal of Phycology: an international journal of algal research , DOI Open access
Laundon D, Chrismas N, Bird K, Thomas S, Mock T & Cunliffe M (2022) 'A cellular and molecular atlas reveals the basis of chytrid development' eLife 11, , DOI Open access
Thomas S, Lengger SK, Bird KE, Allen R & Cunliffe M (2022) 'Macromolecular composition and substrate range of three marine fungi across major cell types' FEMS Microbes 3, , DOI Open access
Chrismas NAM, Allen R, Hollingsworth AL, Taylor JD & Cunliffe M (2021) 'Complex photobiont diversity in the marine lichen Lichina pygmaea' The Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 101, (4) 667-674 , DOI Open access
Zäncker B, Cunliffe M & Engel A (2021) 'Eukaryotic community composition in the sea surface microlayer across an east–west transect in the Mediterranean Sea' Biogeosciences 18, (6) 2107-2118 , DOI Open access
Laundon D, Mock T, Wheeler G & Cunliffe M (2021) 'Healthy herds in the phytoplankton: the benefit of selective parasitism' The ISME Journal 15, (7) 2163-2166 , DOI Open access
Roberts C, Allen R, Bird KE & Cunliffe M (2020) 'Chytrid fungi shape bacterial communities on model particulate organic matter' Biology Letters 16, (9) , DOI Open access
Laundon D, Chrismas N, Wheeler G & Cunliffe M (2020) 'Chytrid rhizoid morphogenesis resembles hyphal development in multicellular fungi and is adaptive to resource availability' Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 287, (1928) 20200433-20200433 , DOI Open access
Chrismas N & Cunliffe M (2020) 'Depth-dependent mycoplankton glycoside hydrolase gene activity in the open ocean—evidence from the Tara Oceans eukaryote metatranscriptomes' The ISME Journal , DOI Open access
Zäncker B, Engel A & Cunliffe M (2019) 'Bacterial communities associated with individual transparent exopolymer particles (TEP)' Journal of Plankton Research 41, (4) 561-565 , DOI Open access
Amend A, Burgaud G, Cunliffe M, Edgcomb VP, Ettinger CL, Gutiérrez MH, Heitman J, Hom EFY, Ianiri G & Jones AC (2019) 'Fungi in the Marine Environment: Open Questions and Unsolved Problems' mBio 10, (2) , DOI Open access
Dale H, Solan M, Lam P & Cunliffe M (2019) 'Sediment microbial assemblage structure is modified by marine polychaete gut passage' FEMS Microbiology Ecology 95, (5) , DOI Open access
Grossart H-P, Van den Wyngaert S, Kagami M, Wurzbacher C, Cunliffe M & Rojas-Jimenez K (2019) 'Fungi in aquatic ecosystems' Nature Reviews Microbiology 17, (6) 339-354 , DOI Open access
Dale H, Taylor JD, Solan M, Lam P & Cunliffe M (2018) 'Polychaete mucopolysaccharide alters sediment microbial diversity and stimulates ammonia-oxidising functional groups' FEMS Microbiology Ecology 95, (2) , DOI Open access
Zäncker B, Cunliffe M & Engel A (2018) 'Bacterial Community Composition in the Sea Surface Microlayer Off the Peruvian Coast' Frontiers in Microbiology 9, , DOI Open access
Cronin-O’Reilly S, Taylor JD, Jermyn I, Allcock AL, Cunliffe M & Johnson MP (2018) 'Limited congruence exhibited across microbial, meiofaunal and macrofaunal benthic assemblages in a heterogeneous coastal environment' Scientific Reports 8, (1) , DOI Open access
Rahlff J, Ribas-Ribas M, Brown SM, Mustaffa NIH, Renz J, Peck MA, Bird K, Cunliffe M, Melkonian K & Zappa CJ (2018) 'Blue pigmentation of neustonic copepods benefits exploitation of a prey-rich niche at the air-sea boundary' Scientific Reports 8, (1) , DOI Open access
Taylor JD, Bird KE, Widdicome CE & Cunliffe M (2018) 'Active bacterioplankton community response to dissolved ‘free’ deoxyribonucleic acid (dDNA) in surface coastal marine waters' FEMS Microbiology Ecology 94, (10) , DOI Open access
Wurl O, Bird K, Cunliffe M, Landing WM, Miller U, Mustaffa NIH, Ribas-Ribas M, Witte C & Zappa CJ (2018) 'Warming and Inhibition of Salinization at the Ocean's Surface by Cyanobacteria' Geophysical Research Letters 45, (9) 4230-4237 , DOI Open access
Cunliffe M, Hollingsworth A, Bain C, Sharma V & Taylor JD (2017) 'Algal polysaccharide utilisation by saprotrophic planktonic marine fungi' Fungal Ecology 30, 135-138 , DOI Open access
Smale DA, Taylor JD, Coombs SH, Moore G & Cunliffe M (2017) 'Community responses to seawater warming are conserved across diverse biological groupings and taxonomic resolutions' Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 284, (1862) 20170534-20170534 , DOI Open access
Engel A, Bange HW, Cunliffe M, Burrows SM, Friedrichs G, Galgani L, Herrmann H, Hertkorn N, Johnson M & Liss PS (2017) 'The Ocean's Vital Skin: Toward an Integrated Understanding of the Sea Surface Microlayer' Frontiers in Marine Science 4, , DOI Open access
Taylor JD & Cunliffe M (2017) 'Coastal bacterioplankton community response to diatom-derived polysaccharide microgels' Environmental Microbiology Reports 9, (2) 151-157 , DOI Open access
Taylor JD & Cunliffe M (2016) 'Multi-year assessment of coastal planktonic fungi reveals environmental drivers of diversity and abundance' The ISME Journal 10, (9) 2118-2128 , DOI Open access
Cunliffe M (2015) 'Purine catabolic pathway revealed by transcriptomics in the model marine bacterium<i>Ruegeria pomeroyi</i>DSS-3' FEMS Microbiology Ecology 92, (1) fiv150-fiv150 , DOI
Taylor JD & Cunliffe M (2015) 'Polychaete burrows harbour distinct microbial communities in oil-contaminated coastal sediments' Environmental Microbiology Reports 7, (4) 606-613 , DOI
Taylor JD & Cunliffe M (2014) 'High-throughput sequencing reveals neustonic and planktonic microbial eukaryote diversity in coastal waters' Journal of Phycology 50, (5) 960-965 , DOI
Taylor JD, Ellis R, Milazzo M, Hall-Spencer JM & Cunliffe M (2014) 'Intertidal epilithic bacteria diversity changes along a naturally occurring carbon dioxide and pH gradient' FEMS Microbiol Ecol 89, (3) 670-678 Author Site , DOI
Kadar E, Cunliffe M, Fisher A, Stolpe B, Lead J & Shi Z (2014) 'Chemical interaction of atmospheric mineral dust-derived nanoparticles with natural seawater — EPS and sunlight-mediated changes' Science of The Total Environment 468-469, 265-271 , DOI
Taylor JD, Cottingham SD, Billinge J & Cunliffe M (2013) 'Seasonal microbial community dynamics correlate with phytoplankton-derived polysaccharides in surface coastal waters' The ISME Journal 8, (1) 245-248 , DOI
Cunliffe M, Engel A, Frka S, Gašparovic B, Guitart C, Murrell JC, Salter M, Stolle C, Upstill-Goddard R & Wurl O (2013) 'Sea surface microlayers: A unified physicochemical and biological perspective of the air–ocean interface' Progress in Oceanography 109, 104-116 , DOI
Cunliffe M (2013) 'Physiological and Metabolic Effects of Carbon Monoxide Oxidation in the Model Marine Bacterioplankton Ruegeria pomeroyi DSS-3' Applied and Environmental Microbiology 79, (2) 738-740 , DOI
Lidbury I, Johnson V, Hall-Spencer JM, Munn CB & Cunliffe M (2012) 'Community-level response of coastal microbial biofilms to ocean acidification in a natural carbon dioxide vent ecosystem' Mar Pollut Bull 64, (5) 1063-1066 Author Site , DOI Open access
Boden R, Cunliffe M, Scanlan J, Moussard H, Kits KD, Klotz MG, Jetten MS, Vuilleumier S, Han J & Peters L (2011) 'Complete genome sequence of the aerobic marine methanotroph Methylomonas methanica MC09' Journal of Bacteriology , DOI
Cunliffe M, Upstill-Goddard RC & Murrell JC (2011) 'Microbiology of aquatic surface microlayers' FEMS Microbiology Reviews 35, (2) 233-246 , DOI
Lobelle D & Cunliffe M (2011) 'Early microbial biofilm formation on marine plastic debris' Marine Pollution Bulletin 62, (1) 197-200 , DOI
Cunliffe M (2010) 'Correlating carbon monoxide oxidation with cox genes in the abundant Marine Roseobacter Clade' The ISME Journal 5, (4) 685-691 , DOI
Cunliffe M & Murrell JC (2009) 'Eukarya 18S rRNA gene diversity in the sea surface microlayer: implications for the structure of the neustonic microbial loop' The ISME Journal 4, (3) 455-458 , DOI
Cunliffe M, Whiteley AS, Newbold L, Oliver A, Schäfer H & Murrell JC (2009) 'Comparison of Bacterioneuston and Bacterioplankton Dynamics during a Phytoplankton Bloom in a Fjord Mesocosm' Applied and Environmental Microbiology 75, (22) 7173-7181 , DOI
Cunliffe M, Salter M, Mann PJ, Whiteley AS, Upstill-Goddard RC & Murrell JC (2009) 'Dissolved organic carbon and bacterial populations in the gelatinous surface microlayer of a Norwegian fjord mesocosm' FEMS Microbiology Letters 299, (2) 248-254 , DOI
Cunliffe M, Harrison E, Salter M, Schäfer H, Upstill-Goddard RC & Murrell JC (2009) 'Comparison and validation of sampling strategies for the molecular microbial analysis of surface microlayers' Aquatic Microbial Ecology 57, 69-77 , DOI
Cunliffe M & Murrell JC (2009) 'The sea-surface microlayer is a gelatinous biofilm' The ISME Journal 3, (9) 1001-1003 , DOI
Cunliffe M, Schäfer H, Harrison E, Cleave S, Upstill-Goddard R & Murrell JC (2008) 'Phylogenetic and functional gene analysis of the bacterial and archaeal communities associated with the surface microlayer of an estuary' The ISME Journal 2, (7) 776-789 , DOI
Cunliffe M, Kawasaki A, Fellows E & Kertesz MA (2006) 'Effect of inoculum pretreatment on survival, activity and catabolic gene expression of Sphingobium yanoikuyae B1 in an aged polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon-contaminated soil' FEMS Microbiology Ecology 58, (3) 364-372 , DOI
Cunliffe M & Kertesz MA (2006) 'Effect of Sphingobium yanoikuyae B1 inoculation on bacterial community dynamics and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon degradation in aged and freshly PAH-contaminated soils' Environmental Pollution 144, (1) 228-237 , DOI
Cunliffe M & Kertesz MA (2006) 'Autecological properties of soil sphingomonads involved in the degradation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons' Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology 72, (5) 1083-1089 , DOI
Brodie J, williamson C, Smale DA, Kamenos NA, Mieszkowska N, Santos R, Cunliffe M, Steinke M, Yesson C & Anderson KM (2014) 'The future of the northeast Atlantic benthic flora in a high CO2 world' Ecology and Evolution 4, (13) 2787-2798 Publisher Site , DOI Open access