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PhD Studentships 2017


The School is pleased to welcome applications for PhD studentships as follows:

  1. Developing non-peat growing media with microbial amendments (Professor Alan Gange)
  2. Varietal and environmental factors optimising rosemary quality (Dr Paul Devlin)
  3. Understanding leaf tissue breakdown in pot-grown basil (Dr Tony Stead)

For further details of the project including funding and closing dates, please see the 'project descriptions and supervisor information' below. 


Candidates should hold, or be expecting to gain by July, a 1st class or 2.1 BSc degree, or an MSc, in a suitable biological subject. All current projects are open to home and EU students only.

How to apply

  • Download and complete the studentship Pre-assessment form available here

  • Email the completed pre-assessment form to SBSstudentships@royalholloway.ac.uk together with

           a) an up to date CV

           b) copies of any relevant academic transcripts

  • Arrange for two referees to send a reference (in any format) direct to SBSstudentships@royalholloway.ac.uk before midnight on the closing date. Ask them to Include your name in the subject field of the email.

Clearly state the name of the supervisor and project you are applying for in any communication.

Please do not send your pre-assessment papers to the project supervisor or through the College online application portal. No other papers, documents or forms are required or will be considered at this stage.

Applicant details will be made available to Royal Holloway staff and any interested parties such as collaborators and funding bodies.

Project descriptions and supervisor information

 1. Developing non-peat growing media with microbial amendments

Supervisor: Professor Alan Gange

Email: a.gange@royalholloway.ac.uk

Co-supervisors: Dr Tony Stead and Dr Paul Devlin

Project description

Governmental directives state that because of the unsustainable and destructive nature of peat extraction, suitable alternatives for use in the horticultural industry need to be found. Much research has examined alternatives to peat, but plants grown in non-peat media can grow poorly, and are often smaller and more varied in size compared to those grown in peat.

Over the last four years, Royal Holloway and the RHS have collaborated on a BBSRC project to examine how soil microbes, specifically beneficial symbiotic fungi (termed ‘mycorrhizas’) can help to overcome the shortcomings of non-peat media. We have found that some non-peat media show much promise if inoculated with the fungi. This successful project has laid the foundations for a detailed examination of non-peat media in an industry that is currently heavily reliant on peat and where plant quality is critical – that of pot-grown herbs.

The largest market in the UK is for basil and coriander and we will focus on these crops. In addition to mycorrhizas, we have been trialling the use of and soil-borne plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR) and have found that adding these to soil can have synergistic effects on mycorrhizal growth and plant yield.

Aim The overall aim of project is to examine how mycorrhizal fungi and PGPR can be incorporated into various non-peat media for the production of high-quality pot-grown herbs, specifically basil and coriander.

1. To determine which mycorrhizal fungal species grow best in non-peat media and what effects they have on herb growth and disease resistance.
2. To determine which PGPR species interact with mycorrhizal fungi and what the ‘optimum’ species combination is for plant health and increased yield.
3. To determine how the microbes affect culinary value, specifically volatile production, and to compare this with plants grown in peat.
4. To determine how these microbes affect nutrient and water relations of plants and to examine the addition of water-holding gels to the media. 
5. To determine optimum inoculation methods for the microbes, by trialling direct to the medium or as a seed coat addition.
6. To determine how shelf life of plants grown in non-peat media with our optimum microbial species compares to that grown conventionally in peat.

Outline of work programme
In conjunction with a major herb producer, we will first trial a number of different mycorrhizal fungi, and PGPR species, supplied by a plant biotechnology company.  Using molecular techniques, we will determine which bacteria and fungi colonise the root systems and which provide the greatest benefits to plants, in terms of growth and volatile content. Mycorrhizas can increase disease resistance in plants and we will study how resistance to diseases such as downy mildews in basil can be enhanced.  We know that different mycorrhizas have differential abilities to help plants take up mineral nutrients from the soil and to tolerate drought.  Both of these parameters are critical in herb production and we will measure nutrient uptake and water use efficiency of plants with different fungi and PGPR.  We will add different water-holding gels to the media to examine whether these and mycorrhizas together can make plants more drought tolerant and ultimately prolong shelf life.  These studies will address objectives 1, 2, 3 and 4.When a species or mixture of species of fungi has been found that produces optimal plants, we will investigate how to inoculate it into pots in a commercial setting, trialling methods of inoculation to the media and to the seed coat. This addresses objective 5.

Ultimately, the quality of the pot herbs purchased depends on the growing conditions and the ability to tolerate transport and shelving in a shop.  Royal Holloway has a lot of experience with shelf life problems and we will examine how plants with our optimum fungal inoculants compare with peat-grown specimens in shop conditions. This addresses objective 6.The project will provide a multidisciplinary training experience in soil microbiology, biotechnology, and food science and nutrition while also providing skills in marketing and business development.


Schroeder, V., Gange, A.C. & Stead, A.D. (2012). Underground networking – the potential for improving yield and quality of pot-grown herbs with mycorrhizas.  Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 92, 203-206Gadhave, K.R., Hourston, J.E. & Gange, A.C. (2016).  Developing soil microbial inoculants for pest management: Can one have too much of a good thing?  Journal of Chemical Ecology 42, 348-356Gange, A.C., Eschen, R. & Schroeder, V. (2012).  The soil microbial community and plant foliar defences against insects.  In: The Ecology of Plant Secondary Metabolites: From Genes to Global Processes. Ed by G.R. Iason, M. Dicke & S.E. Hartley, pp. 170-188, Cambridge University Press. (Available from a.gange@rhul.ac.uk)

Applicants should already have or be expected to obtain a First or upper Second Class degree in a relevant discipline. 

Funded by Royal Holloway and the Royal Horticultural Society for 3.5 years. 

Closing date

The deadline for applications is midnight on 20  April 2017. 

2. Varietal and environmental factors optimising rosemary quality

Supervisor: Dr Paul Devlin

Email: paul.devlin@royalholloway.ac.uk

Co-supervisor: Dr Tony Stead and Professor Alan Gange

Project description

A studentship is available, starting September 2017, funded by the Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Holloway. The project aims to identify improved genetic traits, growing conditions and mycorrhizal supplementation regime for the enhancement of quality of horticulturally-grown rosemary. This will provide a multidisciplinary training experience in plant physiology, soil microbiology, GCMS, SEM and RNAseq.

Rosemary is one of the biggest-selling herbs in the UK, with over 5 million pots, bunches and packs sold per year. RHS Wisley are currently trialling their extensive rosemary collection. This constitutes a tremendously-valuable source of improved traits which could be introduced into currently-cultivated varieties. The project will work closely with the RHS to screen these lines for morphology, taste, and aroma, while also examining growth conditions which optimise these characteristics. The project will also investigate whether addition of mycorrhiza can improve rooting and establishment and whether the presence of mycorrhiza can enhance volatile production.

Taste and aroma (volatile composition) will be analysed both via GCMS and via feedback from tasting panels; oil gland morphology will be analysed by scanning electron microscope analysis; while cutting-edge high-throughput RNAseq will also allow you to establish the rosemary transcriptome, enabling real-time quantitative PCR based assays of gene expression in high-performing varieties and growth conditions. The project also offers the opportunity to work closely with the UK’s leading supplier of pot-grown and fresh cut herbs to carry out greenhouse trials of optimal varieties and growth conditions.

Applicants should already have or be expected to obtain a First or upper Second Class degree in a relevant discipline.

Funded by Royal Holloway and the Royal Horticultural Society for three years. 

Closing date
The deadline for applications is midnight on 20 April 2017. 

3. Understanding leaf tissue breakdown in pot-grown basil

Supervisor: Dr Tony Stead

Email: a.stead@royalholloway..ac.uk

Co-supervisor: Dr Paul Devlin and Professor Alan Gange

Project description

Pot-grown Basil production by Vitacress provides 65 per cent of the total pot basil consumed annually by the British consumer, some eight million pots per annum. Each basil pot is expected to survive on the supermarkets display stands for at least five - six days and be of a similar quality on day six to that on day one. Pot basil suffers from a breakdown of leaf tissue that is progressive in terms of its development on the plants leaves as the plant moves through its shelf life period in store and this can lead to excessive waste.

Loss of quality through the transport chain and during the shelf life process result in high in-store wastage which is both costly and detrimental to consumer perceptions. Understanding the conditions that promote this tissue breakdown and suggesting ways to minimise it are central to this proposal. In a previous successful BBSRC-funded studentship we have worked with Vitacress to develop growing regimes that improve the chill-tolerance of pot-grown basil as transporting material at lower temperatures can extend the shelf-life and may, given the position many stores display pot-grown herbs under, offer some protection when pot-grown herbs are displayed in areas where the store deliberately reduces the ambient temperature (again to increase shelf life). In the present project we will use biochemical (eg production of reactive oxygen species) molecular and structural markers to follow leaf breakdown thus training in a wide range of techniques (including bioinformatics, electron microscopy, PCR etc) will be provided as appropriate. 

In the course of our previous studentship with Vitacress we used RNAseq to develop an extensive transcriptome of about 12,000 gene sequences, this resource will allow this project to investigate which genes, and therefore which metabolic pathways, are involved in the tissue breakdown process and, if appropriate RNAseq will be used to compare gene expression in healthy tissue to that of damaged tissue. From this information we can look at introducing conditions or treatments (either during growth, transport or on the supermarket shelf) that are known to modify the activity of the critical pathways and thereby reduce the incidence of damaging leaf tissue breakdown.

If appropriate the student will spend some time conducting research at Vitacress (Runcton, W. Sussex) and they will be expected to meet with, and produce reports for, staff in all parts of the supply chain thus providing excellent opportunities for interacting with an industry that is known to be short of well-qualified students.

This studentship is part funded by Vitacress and Royal Holloway for three years.

Closing date
The deadline for applications is midnight on 20  April 2017. 

Further information

For further details of the individual staff research interests, please refer to their individual research webpages.  Interested applicants are invited to send enquiries by email to the respective individual supervisors.  General admission enquiries should be sent to the School’s Director of Graduate Studies, Dr Mikhail Soloviev








Other studentships available

Our partners in the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership, Imperial College London also have studentships available. Details of their projects selected for their DTP Studentships together with instructions on how to apply and criteria for student eligibility may be found on their website. We are also partners in the London NERC DTP and have projects advertised on their website.


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