Studying relationships at biological interfaces through directed assembly of marine biofilm communities


Studying relationships at biological interfaces through directed assembly of marine biofilm communities


Project Description


Dr Nick Aldred (University of Essex, School of Life Sciences)  – Contact me

Prof Terry McGenity, University of Essex, School of Life Sciences

Dr Phillippe Laissue, University of Essex, School of Life Sciences

Dr Mette Burmølle, University of Copenhagen, Department of Biology


Project Background

Biofilms are living layers on surfaces formed by bacteria, microalgae, fungi and single-celled eukaryotes.  Surfaces in the ocean are covered by biofilms, but the community composition varies according to environment. Many marine invertebrates (e.g. corals) attach to surfaces and their larvae make the ‘decision of a lifetime’ when they settle. Larvae use biofilms as settlement cues because they are good indicators of habitat, but biofilms can also be a physical barrier to settlement. Some larvae remove biofilms to reach surfaces, while others use biofilms to improve adhesion. These complex interactions between animals and bacteria control the development of natural marine communities from rocky shores to tropical reefs but are poorly understood.

This project will focus on understanding larva-biofilm interactions in the laboratory, but the impact will be in commercial and conservation activities of global importance. For example, larval settlement is a requirement for sustainable aquaculture. Biofouling of ships is both economically and environmentally harmful and can be strongly influenced by biofilms. Corals use biofilms as settlement cues during reef development and each of these can be affected by global change.


The project will use unique communities of natural bacterial isolates, developed in the Burmølle laboratory (University of Copenhagen) to understand how real multispecies biofilms affect settlement of barnacles, mussels and cnidaria (corals, anemones & hydrozoa).  Using laboratory assays of larval behaviour and adhesion strength, lab-cultured and field-collected biofilms combined with metagenetic and confocal microscopy techniques, we will identify traits in biofilm communities that influence ‘decision-making’ by larvae.


The successful candidate will make a significant contribution to a globally important field where understanding is lacking.  They will learn techniques including advanced bioimaging and molecular biology in the School of Life Sciences laboratories and join the Burmølle Lab in Copenhagen to learn bacterial community assembly.  Bespoke methods (larval behaviour & adhesion strength) and transferrable techniques (e.g. microbiology & bioimaging) will combine with data analysis, scientific writing and presentation to deliver a broad skill-set for future employment.

Person specification

Candidates should have a relevant biological background with additional experience viewed favourably.

Informal enquiries can be made to Dr Nick Aldred (


  • Aldred, N., Nelson, A. (2019) Microbiome acquisition during larval settlement of the barnacle Semibalanus balanoides. Biol. Lett. 15, 20180763.
  • Aldred, N., Alsaab, A., Clare, A.S. (2018) Quantitative analysis of the complete larval settlement process confirms Crisp’s model of surface selectivity by barnacles. Proc. R. Soc. B 285, 20171957
  • Olsen, N.M.C., Røder, H.L., Russel, J., Madsen, J.S., Sørensen, S.J., Burmølle, M. (2019) Priority of early colonizers but no effect on cohabitants in synergistic biofilm community. Frontiers Microbiol. 10, 1949.
  • Ren, D., Stenløkke Madsen, J., Sørensen, S.J., Burmølle, M. (2015) High prevalence of biofilm synergy among bacterial soil isolates in co-cultures indicates bacterial interspecific cooperation. ISME J. 9, 81–89.
  • Laissue, P.P., Roberson, L., Gu, Y., Qian, C., Smith, D.J. (2020) Long-term imaging of the photosensitive, reef-building coral Acropora muricata using light-sheet illumination. Sci. Rep. 10:10369.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2023. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 11th January 2023.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£17,668 p.a. for 2022/23) and research funding. International applicants are eligible for fully-funded ARIES studentships including fees. Please note however that ARIES funding does not cover additional costs associated with relocation to, and living in, the UK.
  • ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and ARIES provides £2,500 to every student for access to external training, travel and conferences, on top of all Research Costs associated with the project. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses.
  • ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion in all areas of its operation. We encourage enquiries and applications from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation and transgender status. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience, and our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience.
  • All ARIES studentships may be undertaken on a part-time or full-time basis, visa requirements notwithstanding
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor. To apply for this Studentship follow the instructions at the bottom of the page or click the 'apply now' link.
  • ARIES is required by our funders to collect Equality and Diversity Information from all of our applicants. The information you provide will be used solely for monitoring and statistical purposes; it will remain confidential, and will be stored on the UEA sharepoint server. Data will not be shared with those involved in making decisions on the award of Studentships, and will have no influence on the success of your application. It will only be shared outside of this group in an anonymised and aggregated form. You will be ask to complete the form by the University to which you apply.

Applications are open

To apply for this studentship please send a CV and cover letter to