Project code



School of Biological Sciences

Start dates

October 2019

Closing date

24 February 2019

This project is now closed. The details below are for information purposes only. View our current projects here.

Applications are invited for a fully-funded three year PhD studentship to commence in October 2019.

This fully-funded studentship is supported as part of an exciting joint venture between the University of Portsmouth and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and benefits from the recent award of substantial international funding. There will be the opportunity to undertake a portion of research training at NREL.

The studentship is available to UK and EU students only and covers tuition fees and an annual maintenance grant of £14,777 (RCUK 2018/19 rate). University funding will be made available to offer extensions into a 4th year where this will maximise scientific output and boost research careers.

The supervisors are Prof. John McGeehan, Dr Andy Pickford and Dr Gregg Beckham.

This PhD presents a unique opportunity to join a growing team of postgraduate students, technical and research staff working together within our recently-established Centre for Enzyme Innovation. The Centre focuses on the discovery, engineering and deployment of enzymes with potential application to the circular economy.

The work will include:

  • 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

This project brings together expertise within the Centre for Enzyme Innovation with the common goal of addressing one of our most imminent global challenges for the bioeconomy, the generation of sustainable fuels, chemicals and materials. We aim to understand and improve biological catalysis for the deconstruction of lignin biomass and its conversion to high-value products (1). It draws on parallel research projects currently running in our laboratories on the depolymerisation of natural polymers such as cellulose (2) and synthetic polymers such as plastics (3).

Cellulose and lignin represent a vast potential source of sustainable energy and high-value products. Lignin is a heterogeneous aromatic polymer found in plant cell walls where it is used for pathogen defence, structure and rigidity, and nutrient and water transport.

Due to the intrinsic heterogeneity, complexity, and recalcitrance of lignin, it is typically burned for heat and power in biorefineries. Given that lignin is the largest reservoir of renewable, aromatic carbon found in Nature, we are investigating enzymes that can tackle the challenging chemistry necessary for productive catabolism.

Our recent work focused on a bottleneck reaction in the lignin conversion pathway, and using a combination of structural, biochemical, and computational studies, we elucidated the mechanism of a novel class of lignin-active cytochrome P450 enzymes (4). This presents a new tool for a critical step in biological lignin conversion and we are now exploring the wider engineering of this enzyme, while combing a discovery and characterisation program for a range of other relevant enzymes.

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 Portsmouth biophysics laboratories are equipped with a comprehensive suite of the necessary biophysical instruments. There will be frequent transfer of materials and expertise to and from the UK and US sites and considerable opportunities for international travel and research training at NREL.


  1. Linger JG, et al. (2014) Lignin valorization through integrated biological funneling and chemical catalysis. PNAS 111(33):12013-8.
  2. Kern M, et al. (2013) Structural characterization of a unique marine animal family 7 cellobiohydrolase suggests a mechanism of cellulase salt tolerance. PNAS 18;110(25):10189-94
  3. Austin HP, et al. (2018) Characterization and engineering of a plastic-degrading aromatic polyesterase. PNAS 115(19):E4350-E4357.
  4. Mallinson SJB., et al. (2018) A promiscuous cytochrome P450 aromatic O-demethylase for lignin bioconversion, Nature Com. 9: 2487.

Entry requirements

  • The project requires a candidate with a good first degree (minimum 2.1 or equivalent) in Biochemistry or a related subject, and a desire to excel as a disciplined scientist within a cohesive research team
  • Potential applicants with a Masters-level qualification, or equivalent experience in a relevant field, are strongly encouraged to apply
  • English language proficiency at a minimum of IELTS band 6.5 with no component score below 6.0

We are looking for a talented student with a strong background in Biochemistry, Biophysics and/or Structural Biology.

How to apply

We’d encourage you to contact Prof. John McGeehan ( or Dr Andy Pickford ( to discuss your interest before you apply, quoting both the project code and the project title.

When you are ready to apply, you can use our online application form making sure you submit a personal statement, proof of your degrees and grades, details of two referees, proof of your English language proficiency and an up-to-date CV.

Our ‘How to Apply’ page offers further guidance on the PhD application process.

When applying to the University, please quote project code: BIOL4550219