The role of hydrogen and carbon monoxide metabolism in anaerobic haloarchaea in biogeochemical cycles


The role of hydrogen and carbon monoxide metabolism in anaerobic haloarchaea in biogeochemical cycles


Project Description


Dr James Birrell, University of Essex – Contact me

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

Dr Jamie Blaza, University of York

Scientific Background

Climate change is a critical issue of our modern world, requiring a shift from fossil-fuels to green-energy. Understanding the intricate natural cycling of gases that affect our climate is crucial for predicting their current and future impact. Microbial cycling of key greenhouse gases, e.g. CO2/methane, is quite well understood. Much less is known about microorganisms that metabolize intermediates like CO and H2, connecting the cycles of CO2, methane, CO, and H2. Among life’s domains, archaea remain enigmatic due to limited genomic information and challenges in culturing. Anaerobic high-salinity environments represent widespread yet understudied habitats for recently discovered anaerobic haloarchaea. Their metabolic strategies, potentially involving specialized enzyme complexes, hold the key to understanding gas production and consumption, impacting our grasp of biogeochemical cycles, global warming, and climate change. Haloarchaeal consumption of H2 and CO2 may support their survival over geological time, and influence the management of salt caverns that are widely used for storage of H2 as a fuel. Additionally, anaerobic archaea offer biotechnological promise in biofuel production as well as discovery of new enzymes and metabolic pathways.

Research Methodology

The research plan involves two main facets: enriching and identifying archaea in anoxic hypersaline environments (e.g. salt mines, salterns, deep-sea basins), and characterizing enzyme complexes related to H2/CO metabolism. Objectives encompass anaerobic sampling and cultivation, metagenomic analysis, bioinformatic identification, purifying enzyme complexes, producing enzyme complexes heterologously, and elucidating structures using electron cryomicroscopy (cryoEM).

Person Specification & Training

Applicants should displaying a keen interest in microbiology, biochemistry, or related fields, particularly in microbial roles in biogeochemical cycles. The PhD program offers multidisciplinary training in fieldwork, particularly sampling, and as lab-work, including microbiology, bioinformatics, molecular biology, biochemistry, and protein structure elucidation. The University of Essex serves as the primary location, with potential for cryoEM training at the University of York, and visits to sampling sites including Boulby salt mine. The supervisory team, comprising Dr. Birrell, Professor McGenity, and Dr. Blaza, combines expertise in protein biochemistry, microbiology/microbial ecology, and cryoEM.


  • 1 Furlan C, Chongdar N, Gupta P, Lubitz W, Ogata H, Blaza JN, Birrell JA. Structural insight on the mechanism of an electron-bifurcating [FeFe] hydrogenase. (2022) eLife 11, e79361.
  • 2 Wu JH, McGenity TJ, Rettberg P, Simões MF, Li WJ, Antunes A. The archaeal class Halobacteria and astrobiology: Knowledge gaps and research opportunities. (2022) Front. Microbiol. 13, 1023625.Wu JH, McGenity TJ, Rettberg P, Simões MF, Li WJ, Antunes A. The archaeal class Halobacteria and astrobiology: Knowledge gaps and research opportunities. (2022) Front. Microbiol. 13, 1023625.
  • 3 Huby TJC, Clark DR, McKew BA, McGenity TJ. Extremely halophilic archaeal communities are resilient to short-term entombment in halite. (2021) Environ. Microbiol. 23, (7), 3370-3383.
  • 4 Becker JM, Lielpetere A, Szczesny J, Junqueira JRC, Rodríguez-Maciá P, Birrell JA, Conzuelo F, Schuhmann W. Bioelectrocatalytic CO2 reduction by redox polymer-wired carbon monoxide dehydrogenase gas diffusion electrodes (2022) ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces. 14, (41), 46421-46426.
  • 5 Sorokin DY, Merkel AY, Messina E, Tugui C, Pabst M, Golyshin PN, Yakimov MM. Anaerobic carboxydotrophy in sulfur-respiring haloarchaea from hypersaline lakes. ISME J. (2022) 16, 1534-1546.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2024. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 10th January 2024.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£18,622 p.a. for 2023/24) 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. We expect to award between 4 and 6 studentships to international candidates in 2024.
  • 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.
  • ARIES funding is subject to UKRI terms and conditions. Postgraduate Researchers are expected to live within reasonable distance of their host organisation for the duration of their studentship. See for more information

Applications Open

To apply please email a CV and cover letter to