PhD Studentship available – Oct 2016

A fully-funded 42 month PhD Studentship is available within the Planetary Habitability group at the University of St Andrews, supervised by myself and Aubrey Zerkle. The project will investigate feasible chemolithotrophic metabolisms on Mars and their resulting stable isotope biosignatures, using unusual ice-fed hydrothermal lakes and ponds in Iceland as a ‘biological analogue’ for past habitats and microbial communities on Mars. More information about the project and how to apply can be found in the PDF, also copied below. Please note this project is open to UK and EU nationals only.


Chemolithotrophs on Mars: Metabolic pathways and Biosignatures

Supervisory Team: Dr. Claire Cousins and Dr. Aubrey Zerkle (Univ. St Andrews)
Project collaborators: Prof. Charles Cockell (Univ. Edinburgh); Prof. Alex Anesio (Univ. Bristol)SG207347-SG207352_Pano1 - LowRes

Project: Whether Mars once supported life is a core aspect of space exploration. A major step in this endeavour is unravelling how life can be geochemically sustained and recorded in Martian environments. This project will use microorganisms from ice-fed hydrothermal lakes and pools in Iceland to elucidate which chemolithotrophic metabolisms dominate Mars-like habitats, and identify their resulting biosignatures that will eventually become part of the geologic record. Just as terrestrial geological processes can be used as analogues for their Martian counterparts, terrestrial biology can serve as a proxy for putative Martian biota. Mars-like environments exist at the Kverkfjöll volcano in Iceland. Chemolithotrophic microbial communities will be enriched from hydrothermal samples under both standard laboratory and simulated Martian conditions. Microbial community genomics, active metabolic pathways, and resulting sedimentary organic products and Carbon, Nitrogen & Sulfur stable isotope biosignatures will be investigated to answer the following:

  • Which chemolithotrophic metabolisms dominate Mars analogue habitats?
  • What organic and inorganic biosignatures are produced by these communities?
  • How do chemolithotrophs and their biosignatures change under Mars-like conditions?

Research Environment: The student will be based in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at St Andrews (, which has recently invested over £1.3M on new analytical facilities for geobiology and geochemistry. The student will undertake fieldwork to the Kverkfjöll volcano in central Iceland and will be trained in general laboratory microbiology methods (microbial enrichment, DNA phylogenetics, qPCR), as well as cutting-edge techniques in molecular biology (metagenomics) and geochemistry (stable isotope geochemistry). Collaboration with the UK Centre for Astrobiology, Univ. Edinburgh and the Bristol Glaciology Centre, Univ. Bristol, will also enable the student to build academic networks with some of the top performing universities in the UK. Start date 1 st Oct 2016. Open to UK and EU students with an excellent BSc/MSci geoscience or microbiology background. Laboratory experience advantageous. The studentship covers full payment of tuition fees, a tax-free maintenance grant (£14,296 p.a) and access to internal research facilities. APPLICATION DEADLINE 30th June 2016. General information about eligibility, studying at the University of St Andrews, and the online application form can be found on For specific questions about the project please email Claire Cousins (