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Sustainable natural production of vitamins for human consumption in long space missions using synthetic ecology approaches

MELiSSA Foundation and University of Cambridge PhD POMP program 2018

Supervisor: Alison Smith  and Matt Davey, Plant Sciences

A new PhD project is available to work on vitamin availability to humans in long space missions.  This is an exciting new collaboration between Prof Alison Smith and Dr Matt Davey at the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, Dr. Natalie Leys at the Belgian Nuclear Research Center and Prof. Ruddy Wattiez at the Université de Mons, Belgium. The PhD is funded by the MELiSSA Foundation, which is supported by the European Space Agency.

Candidates should have a minimum of Class 2.1 Honours Bachelors Degree, or a Masters degree, from a UK University, or an equivalent standard from an EU or other Overseas University in a relevant biological subject. Details of the academic requirements can be found here. Please read the information on how to apply.  You will need to complete the University's online Applicant Portal. We encourage you to make informal enquiries to the co-supervisor Dr Matt Davey ( before you do this. 

Deadline for complete applications (including two uploaded academic references) is 4pm Friday 27th April 2018. Interviews will take place early May 2018.

Duration of the PhD project: 4 years at the host UK University with 12 months of the project located at the partner locations in Belgium. The PhD will be awarded by the University of Cambridge, UK.

Start date: 1st October 2018


Hosting University: Prof. Alison Smith and Dr. Matthew Davey, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3EA, UK

MELiSSA partners:

  1. Dr. Natalie Leys, Head of the Microbiology Unit, Institute for Environment, Health and Safety, Belgian Nuclear Research Center, Boeretang 200, 2400 Mol, Belgium
  2. Prof. Ruddy Wattiez, Research Institute for Biosciences, Head of the Laboratory of Proteomics and Microbiology, Université de Mons, Place du Parc, 23, B-7000 MONS, Belgium

Description of the PhD subject:

Vitamins are essential nutrients that would be required for human health during any long mission. For example, vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is an important nutrient in human health, where severe deficiency can cause anaemia, gastrointestinal problems and neurological symptoms. Mild deficiency has also been implicated in ischaemic heart disease and cognitive impairment associated with pre-senile dementia. Plants neither make nor require the vitamin. Instead, the vitamin is made only by certain bacteria. Humans gain most of their B12 from dairy products whereas ruminants gain theirs from commensal enteric bacteria. Thus, human populations that rely heavily on imports of processed food, as may be the case in space missions, are at particular risk of B12 deficiency. One way to enhance B12 status in these human populations would be the use of vitamin preparations, but these may not be available or easily replenished. Although eukaryotic microalgae do not make the compound, we have shown that many species accumulate it when grown mutualistically in coculture with B12-synthesising bacteria. Thus algal products can be prepared that are consumed directly. To investigate this exciting possibility more thoroughly the scientific aims of this project will provide a step change in our understanding of how B12 is made and exported by bacteria, how the nutrient is then taken up by microalgae and whether the cobalt used as a micronutrient can be recycled. In so doing we will investigate a range of options for the production of microalgae with a high B12 content per g biomass, and scale-up such cultures. We will employ genetic and biochemical techniques to identify the components involved in B12 transport (from bacteria) and uptake (into algae). We will investigate if algae can be used to accumulate large quantities of B12 by co-culturing them with bacteria that overproduce B12. Funds are available for a full PhD stipend, research and travel fees. The successful candidate will be invited to ESA and MELiSSA events.

Selected publications:

  • Badri H, Monsieurs P, Coninx I, Nauts R, Wattiez R, Leys N. (2015). Temporal Gene Expression of the Cyanobacterium Arthrospira in Response to Gamma Rays. PLoS One. 26;10(8):e0135565. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0135565. eCollection 2015.
  • Badri H, Monsieurs P, Coninx I, Wattiez R, Leys N. (2015). Molecular investigation of the radiation resistance of edible cyanobacterium Arthrospira sp. PCC 8005. Microbiology open. 12. doi: 10.1002/mbo3.229.
  • Cooper MB, Smith AG (2015) Exploring mutualistic interactions between microalgae and bacteria in the omics age. Curr Op Plant Biol 26:147–153
  • Davey MP, Duong GH, Tomsett E, Litvinenko ACP, Howe CJ, Horst I, Smith AG. (2014). Triacylglyceride production and autophagous responses in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii depend on resource allocation and carbon source. Eukaryotic Cell. 13: 392-400
  • Depraetere O, Deschoenmaeker F, Badri H, Monsieurs P, Foubert I, Leys N, Wattiez R, Muylaert K. (2015). Trade-Off between Growth and Carbohydrate Accumulation in Nutrient-Limited Arthrospira sp. PCC 8005 Studied by Integrating Transcriptomic and Proteomic Approaches. PLoS One. 21;10(7):e0132461. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0132461. eCollection 2015.
  • Deschoenmaeker F, Facchini R, Leroy B, Badri H, Zhang CC, Wattiez R. (2014). Proteomic and cellular views of Arthrospira sp. PCC 8005 adaptation to nitrogen depletion. Microbiology. 160(Pt 6):1224-36. doi: 10.1099/mic.0.074641-0.
  • Helliwell K E, Pandhal J, Cooper M B, Longworth, J, Kudahl U J, Russo D A, Tomsett E V, Bunbury F, Salmon D L, Smirnoff N, Wright P C and Smith AG (2017) Quantitative proteomics of a B12-dependent alga grown in coculture with bacteria reveals metabolic tradeoffs required for mutualism. New Phytol, doi:101111/nph14832
  • Scott SA, Davey MP, Dennis JS, Horst I, Howe CJ, Lea-Smith DJ, Smith AG. (2010). Biodiesel from algae: challenges and prospects. Current Opinion in Biotechnology. 21(3):277-86.
  • Van Houdt, R., Mijnendonckx, K., Leys, N. (2012). Microbial contamination monitoring and control during human space missions. Planetary and Space Science. 60: 115-120.

Plant Metabolism


Melissa: Compartment IV - The photoautotophic compartment


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