Do soil mobile genetic elements mitigate the impacts of climate change in natural ecosystems?


The ACCE DTP is committed to recruiting extraordinary future scientists regardless of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, faith or religious belief, pregnancy or maternity, parental or caring responsibilities or career pathway to date. We understand that a student’s potential can be shown in many ways and we strive to recruit students from all backgrounds, and support them on their scientific journey.

We have designed our application systems to identify candidates who are likely to be successful in research regardless of what opportunities may have been available to them prior to their application.

Various support and guidance on applying for an ACCE DTP studentship, including how to apply; what we’re looking for (including our assessment rubric); details of financial support, training, and placement opportunities available; and details of our recruitment process, can be found at, in the ‘prospective applicants’ tab.

Project overview

Our climate is changing. For plants, soil microbial communities are instrumental in mitigating the impacts of climate change, by inducing stress tolerance, protecting against pests and promoting plant growth. However, many of the functions of microbial communities are not intrinsic properties of the microbes themselves, and are instead encoded on and conferred by the ‘accessory genome’ of mobile genetic elements (MGEs) including plasmids. MGEs harbour diverse traits that can facilitate adaptation to a changing environment, including heavy metal resistance, nitrate reduction, and metabolism of plant exudates to create an energy source, but most efforts to understand the biology of MGEs to date have focused on a narrow range of traits associated with clinical antibiotic resistance. This project will use microbial isolates, soil and plants from the Buxton Climate Change Impacts Lab, where a natural meadow ecosystem has been exposed to drought, warming, and watering treatments for 30 years. Using this globally unique resource, you will explore how MGEs facilitate soil community adaptation to a changing environment.

You will be trained in laboratory methods including microbiology, experimental ecology, and genomics. Background in any of these subjects would be useful, but more important are enthusiasm for soil microbiology/microbial evolution and ecology, self-motivation, and the drive to develop an independent research project. Students will also develop general research skills such as scientific writing, presentation, literature reviewing, and statistics, developing skills that will place them in an excellent position for a future scientific career. The project will be based in the University of Liverpool as part ofthe ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership.

Applicants should generally have an upper second or first class degree in biological sciences, and are happy to consider applications from candidates with lower than a 2:1 award where excellence can be demonstrated in other ways – this would be considered on a case by case basis, and dependent upon approval from the relevant host institution. Please get in touch by email if you have any questions about this project or your suitability for the position, pre-application enquiries are strongly encouraged.

Essential and Desirable Criteria


  • Interest/enthusiasm in the subject of the project
  • Desire/motivation to develop an independent research project (i.e. an understanding of the commitment of doctoral level research and an idea of what is involved)
  • Previous modules/training in microbiology/environmental microbiology/microbiomes (or evidenced ability to develop these or similar skills)
  • Ability to solve problems either alone or by working productively with others (e.g. in a research setting, or experience organising events, etc.)
  • Ability to communicate scientific data effectively (e.g. experience writing project report, presentation experience)
  • Interest in developing skills both in experimental biology and in bioinformatics/statistics


  • Experience working in evolutionary microbiology / environmental microbiology / mobile genetic elements / experimental evolutionary ecology
  • Experience with soil/plant science
  • Familiarity with R
  • Masters-level research experience


How to Apply

Notes and details of how to apply are available here:

All applicants to ACCE must complete the ACCE personal statement proforma. This is instead of a personal/supporting statement or cover letter. The proforma is designed to standardise this part of the application to minimise the difference between those who are given support and those who are not. Candidates should also submit a CV and the contact details of 2 referees.

Part-Time Study Options

All ACCE PhDs are available as part time or full time, with part time being a minimum of 50% of full time. Please discuss potential part time arrangements with the primary supervisor before applying to the programme.

Project CASE Status

This project is not a CASE project. While individual applicant quality is our overriding criterion for selection, the ACCE DTP has a commitment for 40% of all studentships to be CASE funded - as such, CASE projects may be favoured in shortlisting applicants when candidates are otherwise deemed to be equal or a consensus on student quality cannot be reached. This will only be done as a last resort for separating candidates.




Open to students worldwide

Funding information

Funded studentship

NERC ACCE DTP programme starts from October 2024.
UKRI provide the following funding for 3.5 years:
• Stipend (2023/24 UKRI rate £18,622)
• Tuition Fees at UK fee rate (2023/24 rate £4,712)
• Research support and training grant (RTSG)
Note - UKRI funding only covers UK (Home) fees. The DTP partners have various schemes which allow international students to join the DTP but only be required to pay home fees. Home fees are already covered in the UKRI funding, meaning that successful international candidates do not need to find any additional funding for fees.



1.Hall JPJ, Harrison E, Pärnänen K, Virta M, Brockhurst MA (2020). The Impact of Mercury Selection and Conjugative Genetic Elements on Community Structure and Resistance Gene Transfer. Frontiers in Microbiology, 11, 1846. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2020.01846
2.Sayer, E. J., Crawford, J. A., Edgerley, J., Askew, A. P., Hahn, C. Z., Whitlock, R., & Dodd, I. C. (2021). Adaptation to chronic drought modifies soil microbial community responses to phytohormones. Communications Biology, 4(1), 1–9.
3.Horne T, Orr VT, Hall JPJ. 2023 How do interactions between mobile genetic elements affect horizontal gene transfer? Curr. Opin. Microbiol. 73, 102282. (doi:10.1016/j.mib.2023.102282)
4.Hall JPJ, Wright RCT, Harrison E, Muddiman KJ, Jamie Wood A, Paterson S, Brockhurst MA. 2021 Plasmid fitness costs are caused by specific genetic conflicts enabling resolution by compensatory mutation. PLoS Biol. 19, e3001225. (doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.3001225)