Project Highlights:

  • Pioneering work to study the limits of life;
  • Isolation of novel poly-extremophiles;
  • Training in interdisciplinary techniques including microbiology, bioinformatics and geochemistry.

Extremophilic microorganisms live in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. They can thrive in conditions that were previously deemed inhospitable for life, including extremely high temperatures, high concentration salt solutions, acidity or alkalinity. Extremophilic microorganisms are also thought to have been the first representation of life on early Earth and may have played an important role in the evolution of the Earth’s atmosphere. Studying extremophilic microorganisms is important in order: 1) to characterise the physical and chemical boundaries of life on Earth; 2) to understand how life may have evolved on early Earth; 3) to identify potential enzymes that can be used in biotechnology; 4) to understand potential life elsewhere in the Solar System.

As part of a large research grant (£ 6.7 million from Research England), we will be carrying out field work in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. The actual field site for this studentship will be defined as part of this project. This studentship will focus on 1) understanding how microbial communities survive in an extreme environment using a metagenomic approach; 2) isolating novel extremophiles to understand the physiological requirements for survival. The project will use a combination of state-of-the-art molecular techniques and microbiology.


An example of an extreme environment: the sabkhas of Western Sahara.


To understand how life exists within such an extreme environment both culture-independent and -dependent approaches will be used. This will involve extracting DNA from the samples and identifying 1) the microbial species within the environment and 2) the mechanisms that they employ to survive and 3) metabolise. It will involve culturing and isolating (both aerobic and anaerobic) microorganisms and investigating their limits of habitability.

Training and Skills

The student will also gain training in specific techniques in molecular biology and microbiology.



Year 1: Perform a literature review and carry out field work and initial training in metagenomics. Set up cultures for isolation.

Year 2: Submit manuscript regarding microbial diversity. Perform metagenomics analyses and prepare and submit manuscript regarding metabolism. Isolate and characterise extremophiles. Present results at a national conference.

Year 3: Prepare and submit manuscript regarding mechanisms of survival. Write and submit thesis. Present data at an international conference.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

Sophie Nixon (Manchester University) has expertise in analysing environmental metagenomics data. Barbara Cavalazzi (University of Bologna, Italy) has extensive expertise in field work in extreme environments. Eric Bapteste (Université Pierre et Marie Curie) has expertise in evolutionary bioinformatics.

Further Details

Students should have a strong background in environmental microbiology and/or molecular biology. The student will join a research team that has extensive experience working with extremophilic microorganisms at the Open University, as well as working with an active team of geochemists.

The successful student will join the well-established AstrobiologyOU (more details will be found here) and a vibrant  postgraduate community at the Open University.

Please contact Karen Olsson-Francis (karen.olsson-francis@open.ac.uk) for further information.

 Applications should include: