PhD Project, University of Westminster

Posted on Mar 26, 2018 in News | 0 comments

PhD Project, University of Westminster

PHD PROJECT: Spectroscopic biosignatures of microbial life on Mars

Lewis Dartnell, University of Westminster

Four years, full time, starting in September 2018
£16,000 annual stipend and fee waiver

The closing date for applications is 5pm on 13th April 2018 with interviews expected within two weeks of this date. Any queries to:


– Click on MPhil/PhD Biology (P052443), and clearly state that ‘FST 1: Spectroscopic biosignatures of microbial life on Mars’ on your application.

Astrobiology is the multidisciplinary field of science engaged in the search for life beyond Earth. Our planetary neighbour, Mars, shows extensive evidence for a habitable environment conducive to the origin and persistence of life early in the planet’s history. Mars has, however, since suffered an environmental collapse: the planet today is very cold and dry, and the lack of magnetic field or substantial atmosphere means the surface is bathed harmful ultraviolet and cosmic radiation. The question, therefore, is what evidence of past or present martian microorganisms might remain on or near the surface to be detectable by our future exploration rovers?

Hardy, ‘extremophile’ microbes surviving in environments on Earth that are similar to martian conditions, known as martian analogue sites, inform us about the survival limits of life and how best to search for trace signs of microbial colonists. This PhD project will work with samples from a range of such martian analogue sites around the world, as well as extremophiles cultured from them, and analyse their detectable biosignatures using a suite of spectroscopic techniques such as Raman spectroscopy, FTIR (Fourier-transform Infrared) spectroscopy, and fluorescence spectroscopy. Such spectroscopic instruments have the advantage of offering rapid, non-destructive analyses, revealing information on both the mineralogy and biosignatures within a sample, and so have been proposed or are confirmed for upcoming planetary exploration missions, including the European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2020 rover and NASA’s Mars2020 rover. Just as important as characterising what biosignatures we might anticipate to be present on the martian surface from extremophile microbes, is understanding how well these signs will persist in the harsh martian environment. Over what timeframe will detectable biosignatures be destroyed? Can we still recognise unambiguous signs of life even after they have been partially degraded? The second half of this PhD project will therefore study changes to the spectroscopic biosignatures with exposure experiments.

Supervisors: Lewis Dartnell (Westminster), Louisa Preston (Birkbeck)

Related publications:

  • Dartnell, L.R. et al. “Destruction of Raman Biosignatures by Ionising Radiation and the Implications for Life-Detection on Mars.” Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry 403.1 (2012): 131–144.
  • Preston, L.J. et al. “Fourier Transform Infrared Spectral Detection of Life in Polar Subsurface Environments and Its application to Mars exploration.”  Applied spectroscopy 69.9 (2015): 1059-1065.


Eligible candidates will hold at least an upper second class honours degree and preferably a Master’s degree. Candidates whose secondary level education has not been conducted in the medium of English should also demonstrate evidence of appropriate English language proficiency, normally defined as 6.5 in IELTS (with not less than 6.0 in any of the individual elements).

Successful candidates will be expected to undertake some teaching duties.

Research in the Faculty of Science and Technology, Departments of Biomedical and Life Sciences, encompasses a wide range of disciplines from pure to applied science. In the latest Research Excellence Framework (2014), the research outputs of a number of staff were judged to be at the levels of World Leading (4*) and Internationally Excellent (3*). Experienced and research-active staff in the Faculty work in close collaboration with bio-industry, the NHS, research institutions within the UK, Europe and the US.

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