PhD Studentship: Revealing the sensory systems guiding marine invertebrate larval settlement

University of Exeter

Project Title: Revealing the sensory systems guiding marine invertebrate larval settlement

Biosciences, Streatham Campus, Exeter

Marine Biological Association (MBA), Plymouth, UK.

Project Description:

Many marine invertebrates, including sponges, corals, anemones, worms, molluscs, and echinoderms, develop into adults via a ciliated larval stage that forms part of the zooplankton. These microscopic free-swimming larvae must navigate successfully from the plankton down to the sea floor below, where they will undergo metamorphosis into their juvenile form and recruit to seabed communities.

This larval settlement process is vital for the sustenance of different marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, oyster reefs, seagrass and macroalgae beds, and is considered critical to the recovery of marine communities following environmental stress or anthropogenic disturbances.

During settlement, larvae rely on their sensory systems to search and identify a suitable substrate on the seabed. In many species of ciliated larvae, the apical organ, a multicellular sensory structure in the head, is thought to aid in environmental signal perception. Given the specificity of the apical organ to the larval stage, it has been proposed to serve a function in guiding larval swimming behaviour and settlement. Despite its apparent ecological significance, the function and molecular fingerprint of the apical organ in larvae remain largely unexplored.

This project aims to reveal the molecules and cell types of larval apical sensory organs that are important to the settlement process and characterize their function. You will use comparative transcriptomics and in situ hybridization approaches to characterize the genes expressed in different sensory apical cells of larvae from sponge, cnidarian and bilaterian species. Behavioural assays in combination with knockdown or knockout of target genes will be used to assign functions to apical organ-specific genes. By improving our understanding of the evolution and function of the sensory apical organ across different marine invertebrate phyla, we may better understand how environmental change will influence the critical larval settlement process and the maintenance of marine communities.

This award provides annual funding to cover Home tuition fees and a tax-free stipend.  For students who pay Home tuition fees the award will cover the tuition fees in full, plus at least £17,668 (2022/23 rate) per year tax-free stipend.  Students who pay international tuition fees are eligible to apply, but should note that the award will only provide payment for part of the international tuition fee and no stipend. 

International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD.

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex & you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.

Entry requirements

Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology. Prior experience with molecular biology techniques is advantageous, but training in these will also be provided. Experience in marine invertebrate larval culture is desirable but not essential.

If English is not your first language you will need to meet the required level (Profile B) as per our guidance at

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