Synthetic ecology: Simple rules for building complex miniature ecosystems

A mixed microbial community from a lake

A mixed microbial community from a lake

This project will investigate the factors required to build stable microbial ecosystems.

The studentship starts in October 2020 and is funded by NERC. 

Apply for this course

Applicants should apply directly to the lead supervisor, Prof Thomas Bell, with a CV and cover letter.

Application deadline: 6 January 2020

Project background

Ecological communities provide vital ecosystem services - for example, they degrade pollutants and provide the oxygen we breathe. However, ecological communities are extraordinarily complex, typically composed of thousands of species that are entangled by interactions (competition, mutualisms, predation). Understanding the dynamics of such complex systems hinders efforts in understanding the link between community dynamics and ecosystem functioning.

One powerful method for understanding how a complex system operates is to disassemble it and put it back together again. This approach is impractical for most communities, but is possible using miniature microcosm ecosystems, which assemble complex communities composed of microbes isolated from natural environments.

Project Aims and Methods

The goal of this studentship is to build and optimise miniature self-sustaining worlds with proscribed properties. The focus will be on building an ecosystem that is able to stably fix and degrade organic matter. These two processes determine the overall productivity of ecosystems, and therefore act as key regulators of how ecosystems operate. There are also powerful potential applications to bioremediation which could be explored as part of the studentship.

The simplest possible self-sustaining community would contain an autotroph to build organic molecules (eg an algae), and a decomposer to break them down and recycle them back to the autotrophs (eg a bacterium). Whether this ecosystem can be sustained over the long term will depend on many factors, including whether the communities inhibit their future growth.

The prediction from ecological theory is that simple systems are doomed to collapse, whereas more complex communities have built-in redundancies that allow communities to stably prosper over the long term. The specific questions to be addressed would be flexible, but the studentship would build on this hypothesis, for example investigating whether 'vertical' (ie trophic) or 'horizontal' biodiversity alter functional stability. 

A unique component of the studentship is that they would have access to a living collection of hundreds of archived microbial taxa, including decomposers (bacteria and fungi), autotrophs (unicellular algae), and predators (protozoa) and microbial pathogens (bacteriophage). The student would have the capacity to explore 'community-space' by constructing thousands of synthetic communities using robotic automation of community assembly.

The supervisory team has been built around the expertise of the different microbial groups that would be manipulated, including experts in microbial autotrophs (Jungblut), decomposers (Bell), and predators (Bass). The student would be based at Imperial College (Silwood Park campus) but would develop links with the Natural History Museum and Cefas.


To be eligible for a full award a student must have:

  • British Citizenship or; 
  • Settled status in the UK, meaning they have no restrictions on how long they can stay,
  • Been ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK for 3 years prior to the start of the studentship - (For non-EU citizens, this must NOT have been in full time education.)
    This means they must have been normally residing in the UK (apart from temporary or occasional absences). This does not apply to UK nationals. 

For more information, download this PDF.

How to apply

Applicants should apply directly to the lead supervisor, Prof Thomas Bell, with a CV and cover letter.

The deadline for applications is 6 January 2020.

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Prof Thomas Bell


Imperial College London

Main supervisor: Prof Thomas Bell

The Natural History Museum

Co-supervisor: Dr Anne Jungblut


Co-supervisor: Dr David Bass


Rivett, D. W. & Bell, T. Abundance determines the functional role of bacterial phylotypes in complex communities. Nature Microbiology 3, (2018).

Friman, V.-P., Dupont, A., Bass, D., Murrell, D. J. & Bell, T. Relative importance of evolutionary dynamics depends on the composition of microbial predator-prey community. ISME Journal 10, (2016).

Bell, T., Newman, J. A., Silverman, B. W., Turner, S. L. & Lilley, A. K. The contribution of species richness and composition to bacterial services. Nature 436, (2005).

Srivastava, D. S. & Bell, T. Reducing horizontal and vertical diversity in a foodweb triggers extinctions and impacts functions. Ecology Letters 12, (2009).

Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) doctoral training partnership

This is a joint project between The Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) Doctoral Training Partnership at Imperial College London and The Natural History Museum.

Funded by