Funded (UK/EU and international students)

Project code



School of Biological Sciences

Start dates

October 2019

Application deadline

24 February 2019

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 Dr Andy Pickford, Prof. John McGeehan 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:

  • Undertaking recombinant expression and purification of wild-type and mutant enzymes using bacterial and yeast expression system
  • Investigating the binding to soluble substrate mimics using, for example, surface plasmon resonance (SPR) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy
  • Investigating the breakdown of PET surfaces breakdown by electron microscopy (EM) and high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC)
  • Characterising the structure, stability and flexibility of the enzymes and enzyme:substrate complexes by X-ray crystallography (utilising the Diamond Light Source synchrotron), NMR spectroscopy, differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) and molecular dynamics (MD) simulations.

This project brings together expertise within the Centre for Enzyme Innovation with the common goal of addressing one of our most imminent global challenges, plastic pollution. Everyday 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 make it incredibly resist to natural biodegradation, meaning it can last several centuries in the environment. However, there is hope for the future; microbial enzymes that can depolymerise PET (albeit inefficiently) have been discovered, and recently we demonstrated that this PETase can be engineering to enhance its activity (1).

The goal of this PhD studentship will be to further enhance PETase through engineering its dynamic properties. It draws on parallel research projects currently running in our laboratories on the depolymerisation of natural substances such as cellulose, lignin and collagen (24). We will use a combination of biophysics and structural biology approaches that will generate new industrially-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.


  1. Austin HP et al. (2018) Characterization and engineering of a plastic-degrading aromatic polyesterase. PNAS 115(19):E4350-E4357.
  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. Mallinson SJB et al. (2018) A promiscuous cytochrome P450 aromatic O-demethylase for lignin bioconversion, Nature Communications 9, 2487.
  4. Arnold LH et al. (2011) The interface between catalytic and hemopexin domains in matrix metalloproteinase-1 conceals a collagen binding exosite, J Biol Chem 286(52):45073-82

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.

Please contact Dr Andy Pickford (, 02392842055) or Prof. John McGeehan ( to discuss your interest before you apply, quoting both the project code and the project title.

When you're 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