How does Emiliania huxleyi invade polar oceans?


How does Emiliania huxleyi invade polar oceans?


Project Description


Prof Thomas Mock, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia

Prof Cock Van Oosterhout, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia

Dr Glen Wheeler, Marine Biological Association (MBA), Plymouth


Scientific background:

Emiliania huxleyi (Ehux) is a dominant species of coccolithophores, which are calcifying microalgae that have influenced global climate for millions of years. Recent observations show that Ehux is expanding its range into both polar oceans likely driven by global warming. The poleward expansion of Ehux raises serious concerns because it’s increase in abundance relative to non-calcifying phytoplankton (e.g. diatoms) will have important effects on the polar carbon cycle and climate feedbacks. However, the reasons for poleward expansions of Ehux are unclear. Thus, the main aim is to understand how Ehux is able to invade polar oceans. The genetic and epigenetic adaptations that enable polar invasions are largely unknown for any species. Yet, this is one of the most fundamental and important questions facing biologists studying the impacts of climate change to date.


Polar and non-polar strains of Ehux will be used to identify differences in their physiological plasticity and genes involved in the adaptation to polar conditions. The student will combine experimental work at UEA, population genomics analyses and fieldwork in the Southern Ocean. RNA sequencing of laboratory strains grown under temperate vs polar conditions accompanied by physiological measurements (e.g. growth rates, calcifying activity) will identify genes required for polar invasion and their associated phenotypes, respectively. To test the “polar-adaptation” potential of genes upregulated under polar conditions (e.g. low temperature), the student will compare the nucleotide substitution patterns of these genes with neutral reference genes. Population genomics analysis with meta-omics data of natural Ehux populations across polar frontal zones in the Southern and Arctic Oceans allows the student to identify if the Ehux gene pools are temporarily stable, or whether there is evidence of a poleward shift in range expansion.


A combination of experimental work, bioinformatics and field-based research that is highly integrative. Student will receive a broad set of skills based on the latest ‘omics’ tools and associated analysis pipelines, laboratory skills with microbes and skills required to conduct oceanographic ship-based field work.

Person specification:

2:1 Bachelor degree in Molecular Biology, Microbiology, Evolution. We are looking for an enthusiastic individual who is excited about microbes and climate change.


  • Read et al. (2013) Pan genome of the phytoplankton Emiliania underpins its global distribution. Nature (DOI: 10.1038/nature12221)
  • Mock et al. (2017) Evolutionary genomics of the cold-adapted diatom Fragilariopsis cylindrus. Nature (DOI: 10.1038/nature20803)
  • Filatov (2019) Extreme Lewontin’s Paradox in Ubiquitous Marine Phytoplankton Species. Molecular Biology and Evolution (
  • Winter et al. (2014) Poleward expansion of the coccolithophore Emiliania huxlei. Journal of Plankton Research (
  • Nissen et al. (2018) Factors controlling coccolithophore biogeography in the Southern Ocean. Biogeosciences (

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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