Improving Photosynthetic Efficiency - Engineering and Evolution of Light-Harvesting Complexes via Synthetic Biology


Photosynthesis is the ultimate source of food and energy for almost all forms of life. Using sunlight as the energy input, photosynthesis removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere generating the oxygen and carbohydrate that support complex life.

To meet the demands of a more populated planet, crop yields need to double by 2050; improving the efficiency of photosynthesis by engineering crop plants is essential to achieve this. A major inefficiency of photosynthesis is that the pigment–protein complexes that absorb light are finely tuned to specific ranges of the solar spectrum, and thus do not effectively harvest the abundant photons at different wavelengths. The aims of this project are to define the components needed to assemble foreign light-harvesting complexes in genetically-tractable bacteria, to use a combination of synthetic biology and directed evolution to tune their absorption properties, and to then transfer them to the evolutionary ancestor of the plant chloroplast, cyanobacteria, to enhance energy capture in an oxygen-evolving organism. The project will reveal the routes to increased light capture efficiency, and the principles defined will be directly applicable to the engineering of crop plants to meet our future needs.

Candidates should be highly motivated and hold/expect to hold a Masters’ degree or a BSc at first or high 2:1 class in biochemistry / molecular biology / microbiology or equivalent, and have experience of working in a laboratory.

The successful candidate will receive extensive training in all relevant techniques as part of the collaborative, multidisciplinary Photosynthesis, Plants & Energy research group, and will have access to world-leading facilities in the Institute of Systems, Molecular & Integrative Biology at the University of Liverpool.

Applications are accepted all year round.


Open to students worldwide

Funding information

Self-funded project

The project is open to both European/UK and International students. It is UNFUNDED and applicants are encouraged to contact the Principal Supervisor directly to discuss their application and the project. 

Assistance will be given to those who are applying to international funding schemes. 

The successful applicant will be expected to provide the funding for tuition fees and living expenses as well as research costs of £8000 per year. 

New self-funded applicants may be eligible for a tuition fees bursary (UK applicants only) or a £2000 ISMIB Travel and Training Support Grant.

Details of costs can be found on the University website:



Hitchcock A, Jackson PJ, Chidgey, JW, Dickman MJ, Hunter CN, Canniffe DP. (2016) Biosynthesis of chlorophyll a in a purple bacterial phototroph and assembly into a plant chlorophyll-protein complex. ACS Synthetic Biology 5:948-954 10.1021/acssynbio.6b00069

Qian P, Siebert CA, Wang P, Canniffe DP, Hunter CN. (2018) Cryo-EM structure of the Blastochloris viridis LH1-RC complex at 2.9 Å. Nature 556:203-208 10.1038/s41586-018-0014-5

Namoon D, Rudling NM, Canniffe DP. (2022) The role of the γ subunit in the photosystem of the lowest-energy phototrophs. Biochemical Journal 479:2449-2463 10.1042/BCJ20220508