Redefining the metabolism of nitrogen cycling microbes using Dual Stable Isotope Probing


Redefining the metabolism of nitrogen cycling microbes using Dual Stable Isotope Probing


Project Description


Dr Laura Lehtovirta-Morley (School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia) – Contact me

Professor Matt Hutchings (John Innes Centre)

Professor Colin Murrell (School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia)


Project Background

Nitrification is a central step in the global nitrogen cycle and a key driver of environmental change through its role in greenhouse gas emission and eutrophication. The nitrogen cycle is an essential ecosystem service with major impacts on the Earth’s climate and environments. Ammonia oxidising microorganisms play a critical role in nitrogen cycling in soil ecosystems. Ammonia oxidising microbes are amongst the most numerous living organisms on the planet and catalyse the initial and rate-limiting step in nitrification. Despite the immense importance of nitrifiers in diverse ecosystems, there are major knowledge gaps in our understanding of their metabolism and of their role in breaking down organic nitrogen compounds, such as urea and cyanate. This makes it hard to protect the resilience of ecosystem services and manage nitrogen losses from agricultural ecosystems, and this is a major challenge to global food security. This project will address critical gaps in our understanding of the physiology, ecology and activity of ammonia oxidising microbes in soils.

The project

The student will determine the contribution and metabolism of ammonia oxidising microbes to the turnover of urea and cyanate in the environment. This represents an overlooked, missing link between the global biogeochemical nitrogen and carbon cycles.


The student will receive training in cutting-edge techniques in environmental molecular microbiology, including Dual Stable Isotope Probing, metagenomics, transcriptomics, bioinformatics, enzyme kinetics and microbial physiology. S/he will present their data at departmental seminars, at national and international conferences and at the annual Norwich Science Festival. The student will join the cohort of PhD students at UEA and attend training courses for research and transferable skills. The student will join the thriving molecular microbiology theme at UEA with >40 scientists whose research spans the biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen, carbon and sulphur. The project will be co-supervised by Matt Hutchings (JIC) and Colin Murrell (UEA).

Person specification

This project is suited to candidates with a BSc or MSc degree in Microbiology-, Environmental Sciences- and Biochemistry-related disciplines.


  • 1) Lehtovirta-Morley LE, Ross J, Hink L, Weber, EB, Gubry-Rangin C, Thion C, Prosser JI, Nicol GW (2016) Isolation of ‘Candidatus Nitrosocosmicus franklandus’, a novel ureolytic soil archaeal ammonia oxidiser with tolerance to high ammonia concentration. FEMS Microbiol Ecol 92:fiw057.
  • 2) Prudence SMM, Newitt JT, Worsley SF, Macey MC, Murrell JC, Lehtovirta-Morley LE, Hutchings MI (2021) Soil, senescence and exudate utilisation: characterisation of the Paragon var. spring bread wheat root microbiome. Environmental Microbiome 16:12.
  • 3) Lehtovirta-Morley LE, Stoecker K, Vilcinskas A, Prosser JI, Nicol GW (2011) Cultivation of an obligately acidophilic ammonia oxidizer from a nitrifying acid soil. PNAS 108:15892-15897.
  • 4) Radajewski S, Ineson P, Parekh NR, Murrell JC (2000) Stable-isotope probing as a tool in microbial ecology. Nature 403: 646-649.
  • 5) Kitzinger K, Padilla CC, Marchant HK et al. (2019) Cyanate and urea are substrates for nitrification by Thaumarchaeota in the marine environment. Nat Microbiol 4: 234–243.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2022. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 12th January 2022.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£15,609 p.a. for 2021-22) and research funding. International applicants (EU and non-EU) are eligible for fully-funded UKRI studentships. Please note ARIES funding does not cover visa costs (including immigration health surcharge) or other additional costs associated with relocation to 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. 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.
  • 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 click on the “Apply now” link below.
  • 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

Apply now