The role of zinc in the adaptation of diatoms to conditions of polar oceans


The role of zinc in the adaptation of diatoms to conditions of polar oceans


Project Description


Thomas Mock (University of East Anglia, School of Environmental Sciences) – Contact me

Professor Cock van Oosterhout, University of East Anglia, School of Environmental Sciences

Dr. Glen Wheeler, The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom


Project background

Diatoms are the main primary producers in polar oceans, where photosynthesis is largely limited by seasonal fluctuation in light, temperature, and the extent of sea ice. Additionally, trace metals such as iron and zinc play an important role in controlling the biomass of primary producers. Polar diatoms have a particularly high demand for zinc, thereby largely determining zinc distribution throughout the global ocean. The reason for the enhanced requirement of zinc in polar diatoms remains enigmatic. However, the first genome sequences from a polar diatom and other cold-adapted algae revealed adaptive expansions of gene families containing zinc-binding domains. The elevated concentrations of zinc in polar oceans may thus have aided the expansion of these zinc-binding domains. As specific gene families involved in photosynthesis and carbon fixation were both co-expanded and co-expressed, it suggests that zinc plays an important role in supporting photosynthetic growth in polar phytoplankton. Hence, zinc may be the reason why there are complex life forms in polar oceans because phytoplankton underpin polar food webs.

Research methodology

The main aim of this project is to produce the first molecular genetics and biochemical data on the role of zinc in the physiological adaptation of cold-adapted diatoms. The student will work in the laboratory with a cold-adapted model diatom and will apply the latest reverse genetics tools in combination with sequencing and photosynthesis measurements (e.g., carbon acquisition, quantum yield) to characterise to role of conserved low-temperature inducible regulatory genes with zinc-binding domains that are co-regulated with photosynthesis genes. A combination of these experimental approaches together with an evolutionary analysis will provide first insights into the role of zinc-binding domains in supporting photosynthesis in polar marine microalgae.


The student will gain skills in the latest reverse-genetics tools such as CRISPR-Cas and sequence analyses, algal cultivation, photosynthesis measurements, protein biochemistry, bioinformatics and evolutionary biology.

Person specification

A degree in Biological Science or equivalent. We are looking for an enthusiastic student who is excited about applying diverse techniques from the field of molecular microbiology to understand the adaptation and evolution of microalgae in polar oceans.


  • Ye et al. (2022) The role of zinc in the adaptive evolution of polar phytoplankton. Nature Ecology and Evolution (
  • Faktorová et al. (2020) Genetic tool development in marine protists: Emerging model organisms for experimental cell biology. Nature Methods (
  • Falciatore et al. (2020) Diatom molecular research comes of age: Model species for studying phytoplankton biology and diversity. The Plant Cell (
  • Mock et al. (2017) Evolutionary genomics of the cold-adapted diatom Fragilariopsis cylindrus. Nature (DOI: 10.1038/nature20803)
  • Hopes et al. (2016) Editing of the urease gene by CRISPR-Cas in the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana. Plant Methods (DOI: 10.1186/s13007-016-0148-0)

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 19th May 2023.
  • 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. Please note that all international awards have been made for our programme for 2023 so we will not be accepting applications from international candidates,
  • 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

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