PhD Studentships currently available:

Reconstructing the Origin and Evolution of Oxygenic Photosynthesis

Project Description

Applications are invited for a research studentship, under the supervision of Professor A. William Rutherford, to investigate the molecular evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis leading to the award of a PhD degree. The post is supported by a bursary and fees (at the UK/EU student rate only) and funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The studentship is for 36 months from October 2017.

Photosynthesis changed the planet by fuelling the biosphere and by producing the oxygen that energized the atmosphere. How it evolved is a great unresolved mystery.

Photosynthesis is possible because of photochemical reaction centres. These are the enzymes that convert light energy into the chemical energy used by life. There are several different kinds of reaction centres but one stands out: Photosystem II, or the water-oxidising enzyme. Photosystem II uses light to split water into electrons, protons and molecular oxygen. No other protein in nature can oxidize water. A unique metal ion cluster (Mn4CaO5) forms the active site of the enzyme. This is often considered the benchmark for current efforts to make cheap and efficient catalysts for water oxidation to provide the electrons needed for sustainable fuel production.

How did photosynthesis originate? How did photochemical reaction centres evolve? How did water oxidation appear for the first time? These are some of the unanswered questions that are key for understanding the geological and biological history of Earth.

The PhD student will investigate ancestral forms of Photosystem II using a combination of computational methods and protein engineering. The engineered missing-links will be studied by biophysical and biochemical methods. This exciting project will allow evolutionary questions to be addressed experimentally and will provide unprecedented chemical insights on how oxygen-producing photosynthesis first emerged and on how it works. This work could also provide insights for future catalyst design.

The PhD student will receive training in computational methods for evolutionary analysis, microbiological techniques required for the cultivation of cyanobacteria, protein purification, and genetic engineering. In addition, the PhD student will learn a range of biophysical methods including spectroscopies such as absorption, fluorescence and electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy.

Requirements and eligibility

The studentship provides 3 years of funding for UK/EU students, starting October 2017. Non-UK/EU candidates are not eligible. Applicants should have a BSc honours degree (at least 2.1 or equivalent) in Biochemistry, Biology, Chemistry or a related discipline and a Masters degree (at Merit level or better) by October 2017. Exceptional candidates without a Masters degree will be considered. Ideally, the student will have a keen interest in photosynthetic electron transfer, protein structure/function and evolution. Applicants with a desire to do interdisciplinary research may be given preference. Intellectual ability, enthusiasm and self-motivation are essential.

Funding provides full support for tuition fees for the three-year duration of the studentship, and an annual tax-free stipend of £16,553 per year.

How to apply:

Please direct informal enquiries and requests for further information to Professor A. William Rutherford (a.rutherford@imperial.ac.uk). Please email a single PDF file including: a brief cover letter describing your relevant interests and research experience, your c.v. and names and contact information of three referees to both a.rutherford@imperial.ac.uk and t.cardona@imperial.ac.uk. There is no closing date and applications will be considered as they are received, so early applications are encouraged.