Optimising plant symbiotic bacteria through quorum-sensing and engineering biology approaches for delivery of climate-smart, sustainable nitrogen fertilizer for agriculture

Optimising plant symbiotic bacteria through quorum-sensing and engineering biology approaches for delivery of climate-smart, sustainable nitrogen fertilizer for agriculture

For this exciting and timely PhD studentship, we seek an enthusiastic and motivated individual. The ideal candidate will be passionate about contributing to sustainable agricultural systems through the development of ‘green’ technologies. They will have interests in molecular microbiology and in using synthetic biology tools to gain a deep understanding of quorum-sensing systems in relation to plant-microbe interactions.

The student will benefit from being in a large, internationally-leading, microbiology and synthetic biology research group which is equipped not only with cutting-edge knowledge but also the latest equipment and facilities to enable the work. The research environment merges academic and industrial research interests, so the student will see the importance of their research from many different angles. 


For over 100 years the world has relied on the Haber-Bosch process for the production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer for agriculture. That process uses 1% of annual fossil fuel supplies and is responsible for over 1% of global CO2 emissions. Even more worrying, less than half of the nitrogen fertilizer applied to fields ends up in crop plants. The rest drains into groundwater, leaches into watercourses, or decomposes into nitrous oxide, a potent climate-damaging greenhouse gas. This all generates 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2e annually (more than the entire global aviation industry!).

However, there are biological routes to produce biologically available nitrogen. The use of rhizobia as symbionts in leguminous crops is well-established and exploited commercially worldwide. There are also other, less well-known free-living or plant-associated nitrogen-fixing bacteria with significant potential to act as biofertilizers for major food crops such as rice, maize and wheat. Some of these are the focus of this project.

Aims and Approach

The project seeks to gain a deep understanding of the quorum-sensing mechanisms employed by selected N-fixing Acetobacter strains of agricultural interest. The phenomenon of quorum sensing relies on the secretion of small signalling molecules which allow cells within a population to communicate and coordinate their behaviours in response to cell density and local environment.  The project will use the latest genome engineering tools to understand how these systems operate in Acetobacter species and importantly what role they play during plant-microbe interactions. The research work will be undertaken with a start-up company, NetZeroNitrogen (NZN), which seeks to revolutionize global agriculture by using biology to deliver bio-available nitrogen at the point of need and removing the requirement for synthetic chemical fertilizer.

You will join the BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Research Centre Nottingham dedicated to the exploration and exploitation of industrially-relevant bacteria. The SBRC is equipped with state-of-the-art facilities for fermentation, liquid/gas chromatography and has bespoke liquid handling robotics capability. Part of the project will be carried out at NZN.

The project will be supervised by Dr Klaus Winzer (School of Life Sciences) and Dr Ute Voss (School of Biosciences). Informal enquiries may be directed to Dr Klaus Winzer.

 To apply and check your eligibility, please click go to https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/bbdtp/apply/how-to-apply.aspx and you can find further information about how to apply to our programme.

Funding details:

Home and international students are welcome to apply for this opportunity. Funding is available for four years from late September 2023. The award covers tuition fee (£4,596) at the home rate plus an annual stipend which was (£17,668) for 2022. This is set by the Research Councils. Please note that successful international candidates will be put forward for a University Fees Difference Scholarship to cover the difference between the home and international fee.

 Apply online here by noon on Tuesday 17th January 2023

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Doctoral Training Programme

The University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

Tel: +44 (0) 115 8466946
Email: bbdtp@nottingham.ac.uk