Project Highlights:

  • Pioneering work to study life in one of the most extreme environments on Earth
  • Field work in the Danakil Depression (Ethiopia)
  • Training in interdisciplinary techniques including microbiology, molecular biology 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 hot temperatures, concentrated salt solutions, as well as acidic or alkaline environments. Extremophilic microorganisms are also thought to be the first representation of life on early Earth and played an important role in evolution of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Studying extremophilic microorganisms is important for the following reasons: 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.

The Danakil Depression is a region of Ethiopia and Eritrea that is a unique place, where several types of extreme environments uniquely co-exist. Here evaporites have been deposited during seawater evaporation in the hot dry climate. Also, hypersaline and highly acidic hydrothermal springs exist due to hydrothermal activity below the ground (Figure 1). The geochemistry of the brines vary based on the chemical composition of the dissolved evaporites.

There is increasing data regarding the geochemistry of the region. However, to date nothing is known about microbial life that lives and perhaps thrives in this hostile region. Whilst visible life is not present we hypothesise that extremophilic microorganisms would be able to survive and potentially thrive within the hypersaline acidic hydrothermal springs and the evaporitic deposits found within the depression. Furthermore, we hypothesis that the combined environmental stressors, for example high temperature, acidic pH and saline conditions, may result in novel microorganisms that have adapted to survive in such extreme conditions.

The overall aim of this project is to determine whether life can exist within some of the extreme environments in the Danakil Depression, including hypersaline, acidic hydrothermal springs and the surrounding evaporitic deposits. This will be addressed using a combination of microbiology and molecular biology techniques.

Hydrothermal pool in Dallol crater in the northern part of the Danakil Depression. The water is extremely acidic and the coloured surrounding deposits are mainly salts, sulphur and iron crust.


Field work will be conducted in the Danakil Depression region of Ethiopia. Samples of fluid and rock deposits will be collected for geochemical and microbial analyses. This includes: 1) molecular analysis of the samples; 2) isolation and characterisation of extremophilic (both aerobic and anaerobic) microorganisms; 3) geochemical analysis of the samples and 4) morphological identification for molecular bio-signatures.

Training and Skills

The student will gain training in field research and in the design of field campaigns, as well as molecular biology, microbiological and geochemical techniques that are necessary. The Open University has a comprehensive laboratory facilities for all required analyses.

CENTA students will be provided with 45 days training from CENTA through their PhD which includes a 5-day residential and a 10-day work placement. In the first year, students will undertake training in general environmental science, research methods and core skills as a single cohort. Training in years 2 and 3 will progress from core skills to masterclasses specific to the project and overall scientific theme.


Year 1: Perform a literature review and carry out field work. Extract DNA from the samples and start culturing. Initial training in geochemical techniques.

Year 2: Perform molecular analysis from the DNA, maintain culturing and isolation, molecular analysis and geochemical analysis. Submit manuscript regarding evaporites. Prepare and submit manuscripts on life in acidic evaporites and present data at a national conference.

Year 3: Finalise the molecular data from the lake samples and prepare/ submit manuscript. Characterise the isolates and morphological analysis. Write and submit thesis. Present data at an international conference

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

Barbara Cavalazzi (University of Bologna, Italy) and Mekelle University (Ethiopia) have extensive expertise in the local geology of the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia.

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.

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

Applications should include:

Apologies that some bits of information are requested multiple times on different forms. Please fill in everything requested.


Applications should be sent to


by 5 pm on 25th January 2017