Understanding relationships at biological interfaces using engineered bacterial communities


Understanding relationships at biological interfaces using engineered bacterial communities


Project Description


Dr Nick Aldred (School of Life Sciences, University of Essex) – Contact me

Dr Mette Burmølle (Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen)

Professor Terry McGenity (School of Life Sciences, University of Essex)

Dr Philippe Laissue (School of Life Sciences, University of Essex)


Project Background

Biofilms are living layers on surfaces formed by bacteria, microalgae, fungi and single-celled eukaryotes.  All surfaces in the ocean have biofilms, but their composition varies according to environment.  The settling larvae of marine invertebrates use biofilms to identify suitable habitats during recruitment.  However, biofilms also present a physical barrier to settlement.  Some larvae remove or kill biofilms to reach surfaces, whereas others need a biofilm for strong adhesion.  This meeting of kingdoms during larval settlement is a basis for benthic recruitment about which we know remarkably little.  This project will improve our understanding of larva-biofilm interactions toward commercial and conservation applications of global importance.  Settlement of mussel spat for sustainable aquaculture production and the economically and environmentally harmful biofouling of ships, for example, can be strongly influenced by biofilms.  In a changing ocean that threatens the survival of benthic species such as corals, it is crucial to understand how biofilms may control larval recruitment.


Previous studies have used reproducible but unrealistic single-species biofilms, or uncharacterised wild-type biofilms, to understand their role in invertebrate recruitment.  This project will use unique communities of natural bacterial isolates, developed in the Burmølle laboratory (University of Copenhagen) to understand how biofilms affect barnacle, mussel and hydrozoan settlement.  Using laboratory assays of larval behaviour and adhesion strength, lab-cultured and field collected biofilms, combined with 16S metagenetic and confocal microscopy techniques, the student will identify traits in biofilm communities that influence ‘decision-making’ by larvae.


The successful candidate will make a significant contribution to a globally important field where understanding is lacking.  They will learn techniques including advanced bioimaging and molecular biology in the School of Life Sciences laboratories and during visits to the Burmølle Lab.  Bespoke methods (larval behaviour & adhesion strength) and transferable techniques (e.g. microbiology & bioimaging) will combine with data analysis, scientific writing and presentation experience to provide a broad skill-set.

Person Specification

Candidates should have a biological background, with relevant additional experience including microbiology and/or marine biology viewed favourably.

Informal enquiries can be made to Dr Nick Aldred (nick.aldred@essex.ac.uk).

Please email ariesapp@essex.ac.uk to apply.


  • 1) Aldred, N., Nelson, A. (2019) Microbiome acquisition during larval settlement of the barnacle Semibalanus balanoides. Biol. Lett. 15, 20180763.
  • 2) Aldred, N., Alsaab, A., Clare, A.S. (2018) Quantitative analysis of the complete larval settlement process confirms Crisp’s model of surface selectivity by barnacles. Proc. R. Soc. B 285, 20171957.
  • 3) Olsen, N.M.C., Røder, H.L., Russel, J., Madsen, J.S., Sørensen, S.J., Burmølle, M. (2019) Priority of early colonizers but no effect on cohabitants in synergistic biofilm community. Frontiers Microbiol. 10, 1949.
  • 4) Ren, D., Stenløkke Madsen, J., Sørensen, S.J., Burmølle, M. (2015) High prevalence of biofilm synergy among bacterial soil isolates in co-cultures indicates bacterial interspecific cooperation. ISME J. 9, 81–89.
  • 5) Laissue, P.P., Roberson, L., Gu, Y., Qian, C., Smith, D.J. (2020) Long-term imaging of the photosensitive, reef-building coral Acropora muricata using light-sheet illumination. Sci. Rep. 10:10369. (Publication for REF impact case study submission)

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