PhD at Xanthella and Edinburgh Uni now open for applications!

Photobioreactors for sustainable production of plant-driven biocompounds

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From papers, fabrics to wood products, plants generate most of the natural materials used in our environment [1]. Plants also supply medicines, dyes, spices, and other specialized chemicals. While biotechnology has blossomed into industrial scale cell culturing for microbial and mammalian systems, plant cells are scarcely used; interestingly, plant-driven products are generated in other organisms via transgenic introduction of plant pathways [2].

Why are plant cells overlooked in industrial biotechnology? According to representatives of major companies in the field, the problem is simply that the tools and protocols are underdeveloped for industrial plant cell biotechnology, such as the suitable bioreactor platforms and the availability of high efficiency cell factories. Plant cells tend toward frail in typical bioreactors developed for microbes and mammalian cells; they are sensitive to the shear stress caused by mechanical mixing of the medium.

Furthermore, even though plant cells are autotrophic, they need supply of a high amount of sugar inside traditional bioreactors devoid of light. Ironically, the sugar content increases the risk of microbial contamination and infection. Therefore, bioreactors that allow photosynthesis (i.e. photobioreactors) should be developed for plant cell culturing. The biotechnology company Xanthella has established versatile photobioreactors for culturing diverse algae species [3].Pseudochloroccum

Their systems supply air via tubes and thus do not involve mechanical mixing of the medium, and they come in a wide range of scales. Underdeveloped tools also extend to the selection of plant cell factories; the Nakayama Group at the University of Edinburgh is developing a synthetic biology toolbox to create plant cell factories with enhanced capabilities to produce specific types of biocompounds.

This PhD project aims to establish a robust, low-cost, and scalable platform for plant cell culturing and thus plant cell-based industrial biotechnology. Combining the novel Arabidopsis cell factory lines with Xanthella’s photobioreactors, we will develop two enabling innovations for plant cell-based industrial biotechnology: the suitable bioreactors and sophisticated toolbox for precision control of the cell activities.

References: [1] Thompson and Thompson (2013) Sustainable materials, processes and production. Thames and Hudson.; [2] Handbook of industrial cell culture. (2003) Ed. Vinci and Parekh. Springer.; [3]


The student will be co-supervised by Xanthella staff and will conduct research at the company (situated by sea, in the beautiful Argyll area of Scotland) for a year. For the rest of time, the student will be based at the University of Edinburgh.Xanthella offices

This project will offer trainings in both academic and business acumens; therefore, it is a fantastic opportunity for candidates with strong interests in entrepreneurship. This is a BBSRC-funded IBioIC CTP project. It studentship is open to UK citizens and EU/EEA citizens who have resided in the UK the last three years.

If you are interested in applying, please contact Dr Nakayama with your CV and personal statement (explaining why you are interested in pursuing PhD and this particular project) for the first instance.

Deadline for application – 23 April 2017