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Developing mass spectrometry tools to characterise algae’s highly efficient macromolecular machines

Primary Supervisor: Dr Aneika Leney, School of Biosciences

Secondary supervisor: Professor Helen Cooper

PhD project title: Developing mass spectrometry tools to characterise algae’s highly efficient macromolecular machines

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

Microalgae are one of the oldest lifeforms on the planet and can survive in extreme climates such as on ocean floors/mountain lakes. To do this, they have evolved to possess fluorescent light harvesting systems that transmit light to chemical energy with up to 95% efficiency. Precisely how these macromolecular machines operate in microalgae is yet to be deciphered. Indeed, if we can transfer just some of this light harvesting capacity for use in solar panels, that currently operate at 15-21% efficiency, we could expand the use of solar panels, particularly in sunlight lacking countries such as the UK.

This project will aim to characterise the phycobilisome, the largest light harvesting complex in microalgae. The project will primarily focus on the development and application of mass spectrometry to solve this challenging biochemical problem. Specifically, the PhD student will become an expert in one or two of the following: cross-linking mass spectrometry, hydrogen deuterium exchange mass spectrometry, top-down proteomics or native mass spectrometry. These techniques provide complimentary information on how protein complexes assemble, revealing ultimately how they function. Depending on how the project progresses, other complimentary biochemical techniques maybe utilised such as X-ray crystallography, UV-vis spectroscopy and cryoEM. Once progress has been made on phycobilisome characterisation and their function in algae is revealed, the complexes can be designed/re-designed to enhance their biotechnological applications in particular focussing on solar panel development.

In the final years, the mass spectrometry tools developed will be applied to solve other biological problems that researchers within the School of Biosciences and elsewhere are trying to address. Thus, through collaboration with other structural biology laboratories, the PhD student will have multiple projects on-going, increasing their chances of publication output and job opportunities after graduation. All together, the projects will help the development of an understanding of how mass spectrometry can be used to solve many interesting biological problems.


  1. Tamara S., Hoeka M., Scheltema R.A., Leney A.C.*, Heck A.J.R.* A colorful pallet of B-phycoerythrin proteoforms exposed by a multimodal mass spectrometry approach. Chem. (2019) 5(5): 1302-1317.
  2. Leney A.C.*, Tschanz A., Heck A.J.R. Connecting color with assembly in the fluorescent B-phycoerythrin protein complex. FEBS J. (2018) 285(1): 178-187.
  3. Leney A.C., Heck A.J.R. Native mass spectrometry: what is in the name? J. Am. Soc. Mass Spectrom. (2017) 28(1): 5-13.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Understanding the Rules of Life: Structural Biology

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

Mass spectrometry (including hydrogen deuterium exchange, crosslinking and native mass spectrometry), liquid chromatography, SDS PAGE, fluorescence and UV-vis spectroscopy, cation exchange chromatography, use of various bioinformatics tools to handle large mass spectrometry datasets.

Contact: Dr Aneika Leney, University of Birmingham