How will marine microalgae react to a changing nitrogen balance in the ocean?


How will marine microalgae react to a changing nitrogen balance in the ocean?


Project Description


Prof Mark Fitzsimons, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Plymouth

Dr Ruth Airs, Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML)

Dr Gill Malin, UEA, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia

Dr Simon Ussher, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Plymouth


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 maintaining photosynthesis. These compounds degrade in seawater to produce methylamines, which can move into the atmosphere and take part in chemical reactions, influencing cloud formation and climate.

Research Methodology:

This 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 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.


  1. Use liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry and gas chromatography to examine production of N-osmolytes and methylamines by marine algal species.
  2. Experimentally determine how changes in composition of the nitrogen pool influence production of N-osmolytes and methylamines in cultures of key, representative marine algal species (e.g. diatoms, dinoflagellates and coccolithophores).
  3. Undertake seasonal sampling in the Western English Channel to investigate production of N-osmolytes and methylamines under changing natural inputs of organic nitrogen.

Based at the UoP (Fitzsimons and Ussher) with periods of working at the UEA (Malin) and Plymouth Marine Laboratory (Airs), 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.


You will develop advanced lab and field research skills plus transferable skills to support your future career. The analytical techniques and approach are cutting-edge and will give you an excellent portfolio of skills to launch your future career.

Person specification:

This project would suit a self-motivated individual, with good experimental skills and practical ingenuity. Relevant analytical skills and an appreciation of marine microalgae would be ideal. You should have/anticipate a minimum 2i (BSc) in the Biological, Chemical or Environmental Sciences.


  • Manuel Dall’Osto, Ruth L. Airs, Rachael Beale, Charlotte Cree, Mark F. Fitzsimons, David Beddows, Roy M. Harrison, Darius Ceburnis, Colin O’Dowd, Matteo Rinaldi, Marco Paglione, Athanasios Nenes, Stefano Decesari and Rafel Simó. 2019. Simultaneous Detection of Alkylamines in the Surface Ocean and Atmosphere of the Antarctic Sympagic Environment. Earth and Space Chemistry 3, 854-862.
  • Birchill A.J., G. Clinton Bailey, R. Hanz, E.Mawji, T. Cariou, C. White, S.J. Ussher, P.J. Worsfold, E.P. Achterberg, M. Mowlem (2019) Realistic measurement uncertainties for marine macronutrient measurements conducted using gas segmented flow and Lab-on-Chip techniques. Talanta 200, 228-235.
  • Dall’Osto, M., Ovadnevaite, J., Paglione, M., Beddows, D. C. S., Ceburnis, D., Cree, C., Cortés, P., Zamanillo, M., Nunes, S. O., Pérez, G. L., Ortega-Retuerta, E., Emelianov, M., Vaqué, D., Marrasé, C., Estrada, M., Sala, M. M., Vidal, M., Fitzsimons, M. F., Beale, R., Airs, R., Rinaldi, M., Decesari, S., Cristina Facchini, M., Harrison, R. M., O’Dowd, C. & Simó, R. (2017) Antarctic sea ice region as a source of biogenic organic nitrogen in aerosols. Scientific Reports, 7, 6047.
  • McKew, B. A., Metodieva, G., Raines, C. A., Metodiev, M. V. & Geider, R. J. (2015) Acclimation of Emiliania huxleyi (1516) to nutrient limitation involves precise modification of the proteome to scavenge alternative sources of N and P. Environmental Microbiology, 17, 4050.
  • Franklin, D.J., Airs, R.L., Fernandes, M., Bell, T.G., Bongaerts, R.J., Berges, J.A., Malin, G. (2012) Identification of senescence and death in Emiliania huxleyi andThalassiosira pseudonana: Cell staining, chlorophyll alterations, and dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) metabolism. Limnology & Oceanography 57, 305.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, and will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award.
  • 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 in the subject area (see
  • This studentship will start on 1st October 2020, and the closing date for applications is 23:59 on 15th January 2020.
  • Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 18/19 February 2020.
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor.
  • Please note that the joint NERC-ESRC ARIES-SeNSS studentship projects have different deadlines and funding arrangements. For full details please visit, or contact

Studentship Open for Applications

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