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PhD Scholarship to Investigate Controls on Microbial Chitin Turnover in Sediments

A new opening PhD position in geochemistry is available at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. There is no application deadline for this position.

The Environmental Microbiology group at the ETH Zurich's Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics in the Department of Environmental Systems Science is a highly interdisciplinary research laboratory that examines controls on the presence, abundance, community composition, and metabolism of carbon-cycling microorganisms in aquatic sediments. We are currently looking for a PhD student to investigate controls on microbial chitin turnover in sediments (100%)

Project background: Chitin is the second most abundant biopolymer on Earth after cellulose, and the most abundant biopolymer in aquatic systems, yet little is known about the fate of chitin in sediments. Given the vast amounts of chitin that are produced annually by the biosphere, and the importance of aquatic sediments as the biggest carbon sink on Earth, an integrated understanding of chitin preservation and degradation in sediments is necessary. This project will produce insights into the size of the global sedimentary chitin sink by quantifying the chitin content in surface and subsurface lake and marine sediments across a wide range of geographic locations. These global patterns in the lateral and vertical distribution of chitin will produce important insights into the variables that control whether sedimentary chitin is preserved over geologic time or microbially broken down to the greenhouse gasses CO2 and methane over shorter time scales. Targeted in vitro and in situ experiments will then be used to investigate the controls on microbial chitin degradation and identify key microbial chitin degraders and degradation mechanisms in surface and subsurface sediments. Geochemical methods will include chemical hydrolysis and derivatization, gas and ion chromatography, mass spectrometry, and colorimetry and be used to monitor rates and pathways of chitin degradation. Microbiological techniques will include enrichment of anaerobic chitin-degrading microorganisms using different forms of chemically complexed chitin under different redox conditions. Microbial populations will be quantified and characterized based on quantitative PCR and next generation sequencing of 16S rRNA genes and chitin-degradation genes. Analyses on genomes from a wide range of samples will be used to explore the diversity of chitin-degrading genes in sediments and determine the identities of unknown chitin-degrading microorganisms. Additionally, epifluorescence microscopy combined with Raman spectroscopy may be used to study associations of chitin-degrading microorganisms with their substrates and identify succession patterns in the microbial mineralization of chitin. By combining a highly interdisciplinary approach with cutting-edge technologies to study the fate of a globally important biopolymer, this study will significantly advance our understanding of the global carbon cycle.

We are looking for highly motivated and ambitious candidates with a university background and/or research experience in one of the following areas: (1) biogeochemistry, (2) microbial ecology, or (3) organic geochemistry. The ideal candidate will have a strong drive and intellectual passion for interdisciplinary scientific discovery, enjoy contributing to and collaborating as part of a multi-disciplinary international research team, and have a fondness for hard work – even under adverse conditions in the field. Previous experience in the methods used is a plus but not a requirement.


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