Production of volatile nitrogen by marine algae: implications of a changing nutrient balance

Project title: Production of volatile nitrogen by marine algae: implications of a changing nutrient balance

Reference number: FITZSIMONS_UPLYM18EE

Director of studies: Dr Mark Fitzsimons

Second supervisor: Dr Gill Malin (UEA)

Third supervisor: Dr Ruth Airs (PML)

Applications are invited for a three and a half years PhD studentship. The studentship will start in October 2018.

Scientific background

Microalgae are major components of marine ecosystems worldwide, providing essential ecosystem services including using carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. Our research shows that they also produce nitrogen-containing compounds (N-osmolytes) used for alleviating salinity stress and maintenance of photosynthesis. These compounds degrade in seawater to produce methylamines, which can move into the atmosphere, where they take part in chemical reactions, influencing cloud formation and climate.  

This PhD is an exciting opportunity to advance understanding of the production of N-osmolytes and methylamines by algae today and in the future. Climate change scenarios predict conditions leading to variable riverine inputs to coastal areas and changes to the balance of the nutrient pools. Your challenge is to investigate how these changes might affect production of N-osmolytes and methylamines, which could have important consequences for the climate.


  • Use liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry and gas chromatography to examine production of N-osmolytes and methylamines for a global microalgal species (Emiliania huxleyi). 
  • Undertake seasonal sampling in the Western English Channel to investigate production of N-osmolytes and methylamines under changing natural inputs of organic nitrogen.
  • Experimentally determine how changes in composition of the nitrogen pool influence production of N-osmolytes and methylamines in cultures of Emiliania huxleyi.
Supervisory team
Based at the University of Plymouth (Dr Mark Fitzsimons) with periods of working at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (Dr Ruth Airs) and the University of East Anglia (Dr Gill Malin), this studentship will include algal culturing and field sampling in coastal and oceanic waters. We are a strong multidisciplinary team with excellent track records for research on algae and measurement of the compounds to be studied. 


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.

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 three and a half 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 three 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.

To apply

This project would suit a self-motivated student, with a good experimental skills and practical ingenuity. Relevant analytical skills and an appreciation of algae would be ideal. You should have/anticipate a 1st or 2:1 BSc and/or an MSc in the biological, chemical or environmental sciences. 

Follow this link to start your online application process.

The closing date for applications is 8 January 2018.  

Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed by EnvEast on 12/13 February 2018.

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).