Unlocking the mysteries of life giving microbes

Microscopic view of diatoms.

Diatoms are tiny organisms that are found throughout marine ecosystems.

29 August 2018 by Katherine Helliwell

As part of a series of interviews with new NERC Independent Research Fellows, Katherine Helliwell tells us about what motivated her to apply for the scheme and the benefits of getting to grips with phytoplankton.

My main motivation for applying for a NERC Independent Research Fellowship (IRF) was that it would allow me to pursue my work as an independent researcher - giving me the freedom and time to build my independent research agenda and take a leading role in the field of phytoplankton biology research.

Before applying for the IRF, I completed my BSc in biological sciences at the University of Bristol before spending four years pursuing a PhD and postdoc in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge. Following my first postdoc, in November 2015 I joined the Marine Biological Association on a European Research Council funded project.

Katherine Helliwell

Katherine Helliwell

My fellowship focuses on gaining a better understanding of a group of phytoplankton - tiny organisms that get their energy from light - called the diatoms. Diatoms are abundant and found throughout marine ecosystems. Although tiny, they are globally important.

Phytoplankton are at the bottom of marine food chains, which means that - directly or indirectly - much of the life in the oceans depends on them. Phytoplankton are also vital in regulating our climate, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. On top of that, they even generate almost half of the oxygen we breathe.

Although each one is microscopic, they can make themselves known on a massive scale when their populations explode and they form huge 'algal blooms' in the ocean. Many of these blooms are vital for sustaining marine ecosystems, but some can have a negative impact on them, as well as on fisheries and even human health, when they release harmful toxins. The effects of climate change and nutrient pollution (such as agricultural fertiliser run-off) have led to more severe and frequent algal blooms.

Satellite image showing phytoplankton bloom

Satellite image showing phytoplankton bloom off the coast of Vancouver in British Columbia.

One of the reasons diatoms are so successful in marine environments is because they are particularly good at detecting favourable conditions and are often the first to take advantage of them and bloom. However, it remains poorly understood how they do it.

I will focus on understanding what happens at a molecular level that enables diatoms to sense and rapidly respond to environmental triggers. I have developed a cutting-edge molecular toolbox, including genome editing that will provide an unprecedented insight into these molecular processes.

By addressing this key knowledge gap in phytoplankton biology, my fellowship work will provide important insights that will benefit multiple fields - such as plant and animal cell biologists, oceanographers, ecologists and policymakers. This work will allow us to understand what governs the proliferation of globally important diatom blooms that underpin our key marine resources, as well as how to predict, prevent or mitigate toxic algal blooms.

Advancing understanding of how diatoms recognise and respond to other microbes at a molecular level also has the potential to lead to the discovery of new antimicrobial and microbial growth-promoting compounds and drugs.


The NERC IRF scheme is designed to develop scientific leadership among the most promising early-career environmental scientists by giving all fellows five years' support, which will allow them sufficient time to develop their research programmes and to gain international recognition.

Applications for the current Independent Research Fellowship call closes on 2 October 2018. Further information can be found on the Independent Research Fellowship webpage.