Funded PhD opportunities

New enzymes for degrading plastics: a combined structural and synthetic biology approach

  • Application end date: 28th February 2018
  • Funding Availability: Funded PhD project (EU/UK students only)
  • Department: School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences
  • PhD Supervisor: Prof. John McGeehan, Dr Andy Pickford & Dr Gregg Beckham (NREL, USA)

Project code: BIOL3801117

Project description

We are looking for a talented student with a strong background in Biochemistry, Biophysics and/or Structural Biology. You will join a growing team of postgraduate students, technical and research staff working together on an enzyme discovery and characterisation project. This studentship is supported as part of an exciting joint venture between the University of Portsmouth in the UK and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the USA ( and benefits from the recent award of substantial international funding.

This project brings together expertise from multiple groups with the common goal of addressing one of our most imminent global challenges, plastic pollution. Plastic polymers are now part of our everyday life and we have become closely associated with these materials. Plastics such as poly(ethylene terephthalate), or PET, are highly versatile, but are accumulating in the environment at a staggering rate as discarded packaging and textiles. The chemical properties that make PET so useful also endow it with an alarming resistance to natural biodegradation, likely lasting several centuries in the environment. Our collective reliance on PET and other synthetic polymers is likely to increase, therefore, we urgently require solutions for recycling these materials through processes that are both economically and environmentally sustainable. We propose an integrated chemical and biological approach, capitalising on recent advances that have revealed microbial enzymes that have the remarkable ability to depolymerise man-made plastics (1). There is now enormous potential for targeting natural enzymes as platforms for protein engineering and targeted evolution utilising modern synthetic biology techniques (2).

The goal of this PhD studentship will be to identify, characterize, and optimize key enzymes that can degrade man-made plastics, and in addition, plant-based polymers such as lignin. This will draw on parallel research projects currently running in our laboratories on the depolymerisation of natural polymers such as cellulose and lignin (3). We will use a combination of biophysics and structural biology approaches that will enable the creation of new industrially relevant enzymes. The studentship will focus on several areas:

- Identification of novel enzymes from the diverse source of microbial and fungal targets

- Expression and purification of novel aromatic metabolic proteins

- Biophysical characterisation of proteins and complexes

- Biochemical analysis to investigate kinetic bottlenecks in synthetic microbial pathways

- X-ray crystallography in our home laboratory and at the Diamond Light Source

- Protein engineering to improve enzyme kinetics in an industrial context

In addition to a full program of training provided by the Graduate School, specialist training will be provided for a range of in-house instruments and techniques. The Molecular Biophysics Laboratories at Portsmouth are equipped with a wide range of biophysical instruments including AUC, SEC-MALLS, CD, ITC, DSC and advanced spectroscopy. In addition to extensive in-house X-ray and NMR facilities, we are just over 1 hour from the UK’s state-of-the-art synchrotron, the Diamond Light Source. There will be frequent transfer of materials and expertise to and from the UK and US sites and considerable opportunities for international travel.

 Supervisor profiles

Prof. John McGeehan

Dr Andy Pickford

Dr Gregg Beckham (NREL, USA)

Admissions criteria

You’ll need a good first degree from an internationally recognised university (depending upon chosen course, minimum second class or equivalent) or a Master’s degree in an appropriate subject. Exceptionally, equivalent professional experience and/or qualifications will be considered. English language proficiency at a minimum of IELTS band 6.5 with no component score below 6.0.


Informal enquiries are encouraged and can be made to Prof John McGeehan at  (02392 842042)

For administrative and admissions enquiries please contact

How to Apply

You can apply online at You are required to create an account which gives you the flexibility to save the form, log out and return to it at any time convenient to you.

A link to the online application form and comprehensive guidance notes can be found at

When applying, please quote project code: BIOL3801117

Interview date: TBC

Start date: October 2018.

Funding notes

The fully-funded, full-time three-year studentship provides a stipend that is in line with that offered by Research Councils UK of £14,553 per annum.

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