Understanding factors controlling the success of diatoms in temperate shelf sea environments


Understanding factors controlling the success of diatoms in temperate shelf sea environments


Project Description


Dr James Clark (Plymouth Marine Laboratory) – Contact me

Professor Thomas Mock (University of East Anglia, School of Environmental Sciences)

Professor Kevin Flynn (Plymouth Marine Laboratory)

Mrs Claire Widdicombe (Plymouth Marine Laboratory)


Project Background

Diatoms are microscopic plankton, characterised by their spectacular cell walls which they construct from biogenic silica (‘glass’). Found throughout the global ocean, they are often abundant in coastal and high latitude environments where they form blooms visible from space. They play a fundamental role in marine ecosystems, drawing carbon dioxide down from the atmosphere and exporting the associated carbon to deeper waters. They also fuel marine food webs and help to support global fisheries.

Several factors underpin the success of diatoms, including a tremendous diversity of forms, physiological flexibility, and high levels of protection against predation and viral attack. However, much uncertainty surrounds what combination of characteristics enable different diatom species to thrive and when. This uncertainty undermines our ability to predict the response of diatoms to environmental change and to fully understand the vital ecological role they play.

Research methodology

The student will investigate combinations of ecological processes and genetic/physiological adaptations that enable diatoms to succeed. They will use metabolomics and metatranscriptomics to study how diatoms sense and respond to their environment; and with this insight, develop innovative simulation models of diatoms and their role in marine ecosystems. The models will be used to test hypotheses that explain observed patterns and trends in diatom diversity and population dynamics. The work will focus on the Western English Channel (WEC), exploiting a rich 30-year data series on diatoms and associated environmental variables, and laboratory and field data collected during the project.


The project will provide the student with an exciting opportunity to work with a supervisory team that includes world leaders in the study of microalgae physiology and evolution; marine plankton ecology; plankton simulation modelling; and marine ecosystem modelling. The student will learn advanced data analysis and modelling techniques; gain laboratory and field work experience; and acquire generic time management and team working skills. The student will present their findings at national and international conferences.

Person specification

The project will suit an outstanding student with a degree in a numerate discipline (e.g. biochemistry, physics, oceanography) and a keen interest in marine science. Experience in Python programming is desirable.


  • 1) Behrenfeld, M. J., Halsey, K. H., Boss, E., Karp-Boss, L., Milligan, A. J., and Peers, G. 2021. Thoughts on the evolution and ecological niche of diatoms. Ecological Monographs, 00(00):e01457. https://doi.org/10.1002/ecm.1457.
  • 2) Falciatore, A., Jaubert, M., Bouly, J-P., Bailleul, B., Mock, T. 2020. Diatom Molecular Research Comes of Age: Model Species for Studying Phytoplankton Biology and Diversity, The Plant Cell, 32 (3), pp. 547–572, https://doi.org/10.1105/tpc.19.00158.
  • 3) Toseland, A., Daines, S., Clark, J. R. et al. 2013. The impact of temperature on marine phytoplankton resource allocation and metabolism. Nature Climate Change, 3, 979–984. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1989.
  • 4) Widdicombe, C. E., Eloire, D., Harbour, D., Harris, R. P., and Somerfield, P. J. 2010. Long-term phytoplankton community dynamics in the Western English Channel, Journal of Plankton Research, 32 (5), pp 643–655. https://doi.org/10.1093/plankt/fbp127.
  • 5) Flynn, K.J. 2005. Modelling marine phytoplankton growth under eutrophic conditions. Journal of Sea Research, 54 (1), pp. 92-103. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.seares.2005.02.005.

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

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