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Professor Graham J.C. Underwood Executive Dean, Faculty of Science and Health

Position in departmentMember of Ecology and Plant Biology Research Group (Ecology and Biogeochemistry)
Staff positionProfessor in Marine and Freshwater Biology
Telephone01206 873337
Current research

I am a marine and freshwater biologist, particularly interested in the the interactions between microbes (algae and bacteria), nutrient and element cycling, and how these 'bottom up' process feed through into ecosystem functioning. I have broader interests in the biology of invertebrates, habitat use and fragmentation on the coast, coastal geomorphology and sea level rise. My research is based in the U.K., but I have also carried out research in the Baltic, Mediterranean and South African environments, tropical systems in the Indo-pacific and the Bahamas, and more recently studying Antarctic and Arctic sea ice communities.


consist of many algal species in a structured mucilage matrix. They play fundamental roles in fixing carbon, utilising nutrients, interacting with bacterial processes, stabilising sediments and providing food for invertebrates and fish. An underpinning aspect of my groups research concerns the integration of activities of individual cells and species with the overall properties of biofilms. Just how important is species composition in determining biofilm ecology?

Projects  and current funded programmes

Five major funded projects are currently underway:

NERC, The key role of DOM in regulating microbial diversity, community structure and organic carbon cycling in arctic lakes (July 2012- March 2016, £562,400 (£494,161 plus £64k NERC facilities costs, PI coIs McGenity, Dumbrell; Anderson, Loughborough (+ £186,406)).

NERC, A hierarchical approach to the examination of the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem service flows across coastal margins - CBESS. (Feb 2012 - Mar 2016, £392,843, £312,210, plus £86K NERC facilities costs, PI, coIs McGenity, Dumbrell).Jan 2012, £714,318).  Part of the NERC Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services thematic programme;  http://www.nerc-bess.net/

NERC, The role of lateral exchange in modulating the seaward flux of CNP (Aug 2012 - July 2015. CoI, with Whitby, Nedwell, Dong).  Part of the NERC Macronutrient cycles thematic programme  http://macronutrient-cycles.ouce.ox.ac.uk/

Environment Agency. Water Framework Directive  status in Transitional and Coastal waters: assessment and new modes of monitoring. (PI, Aug. 2011 - Feb 2013. £40,000.)

King Abdul Aziz University, Saudi Arabia. Envrionmental metagenomics and biotechnology of Rhazya stricta and its associated microbiota. (joint PIs, Mullineaux, McGenity, May 2011 - Nov 2013. £438,702,)

Recent projects funded by UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) have investigated photosynthesis, exopolymer production (extracellular polymeric substances, polysaccharides, carbohydrates)  in estuarine benthic diatom biofilms and in sea ice environments in the Arctic and Antarctic.  My group also has interests in the rhythms in photosynthesis, spatial and temporal heterogeneity and the contributions of different algal taxa to biofilm productivity. Diatoms have complex behavioural and physiological response enabling them to cope with high light stress, UVB and photo-oxidative damage: one reason for their abundance and high levels of primary production in aquatic systems.

  •   Production of Exopolymers by diatoms in benthic and sea ice environments.

    • Exopolymers (EPS) are important in aquatic systems as a carbon source and because they contribute towards biostabilisation of sediments. Our research has examined the relationship between diatom biomass, primary production and exopolymer production in benthic diatoms and patterns of expolymer production and utilisation of internal storage products under different conditions, in mudflats, on tropical beaches, in Bahamian stromatolites and in sea ice from the Antarctic and Arctic Oceans.    Though intertidal sediment and sea ice, at first glance, seem quite different systems, the challenges they pose to diatoms (steep light gradients, temperature and salinity stress, spatial co-location and metabolic coupling with bacteria) are rather similar.   Our recent work has been the first to characterise the complex EPS produced by diatoms under these different stress conditions, and demonstrate the role they play in enabling cell survival., we investigated patterns of EPS production, sugar composition and structure in more detail, and this work has led to further funding by NERC on the dynamics of microbial cycling of carbohydrates in the surface layers of intertidal mudflats, concentrating on the coupling between inputs of extracellular carbohydrates, the rates and nature of degradation of this organic material by microbial metabolic activity, and characterisation of the enzymes and microbial taxa involved. These projects have enabled us to identify groups of bacteria (by phospholipid fatty acid profiles and stable isoptope signatures) that appear to be particularly able to degrade the different types of complex polysaccharides and other EPS produced by diatoms. Recent studies, using stable isotope probing of RNA, has demonstrated rapid uptake of diatom-derived EPS into specific groups of bacteria. It is likely that consortia of bacteria are involved in EPS degradation, and this is an important carbon cycling pathway in benthic systems.

     My other research interests include:

    • Salt marsh and estuarine ecology, looking at marsh fragmentation, food resources and habitat use by juvenile fish.   The importance of water quality and environmental factors in the ecology of oysters (Ostrea edulis and Crassostrea gigas), and management measures to enhance biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in coastal habitats.
    • Ecology of microalgal biofilms in tropical (corals sands, seagrass beds, beaches) habitats
    • Sediment stabilisation by microalgal biofilms
    • Managed realignment, saltmarsh restoration and rising sea levels

  • Research interests
    • Estuarine and coastal ecology, especially:
      • The ecology of microphytobenthos (benthic microalgae) in coastal ecosystems,
      • The role of benthic primary producers in coastal nutrient cycles
      • Estuarine ecology and functioning (fish, shellfish and invertebrates)
    • Photosynthesis and production of exopolymers (EPS) by benthic diatoms.
    • Response of biofilms to deleterious environmental conditions (UVB, herbicides, hydrocarbons)
    • Role of microbial EPS in sea ice habitats

    Other research interests are in:

    • Interaction between algae and invertebrate grazers
    • Taxonomy and diversity of marine benthic diatoms
    • Managed retreat schemes, saltmarsh restoration and rising sea levels

    Further Research

    PublicationsLink to publications for Graham J.C. Underwood

    August 2012. Plenary Speaker. International Diatom Symposium, Ghent, Belgium.
    Jun 2011 Plenary speaker. International Symposium on the trophic significant of MPB biofilms. La Rochelle, France.
    Jan 2011 British Phycologcial Society, invited lecture. Special session “Algae in estuaries”
    Sept 2010 Plenary Lecturer: Coastal Diatoms – indicators or just opportunists. All at Sea? - synergies between past and present coastal processes & ecology, 9-10th Sept 2010, University of Loughborough. U.K.
    Jan 2010. British Phycological Society Annual Meeting, Invited lecture, Productivity in migroalgal biofilms – adaptation for living in a muddy world Oban 7-9th January 2010
    Sept 2009. Society of General Microbiology, Herriot Watt, Scotland. Invited Lecture, Polar Microbiology HW14. “Exopolymer (EPS) production by diatoms in sea ice.”
    July 2007. European Phycological Congress, Oviedo, Spain. Invited lecture: Response of diatoms to light and salinity stress.
    April 2006 North East Algal Symposium, New York, USA Plenary speaker,. Biofilms.
    June 2005 American Society for Limnology and Oceanography meeting, Santiago, Spain, June 19-24. Invited keynote speaker, special session Biogeochemistry of tidal flats.June 2005,
    April 2005 European Geophysical Union Congress, Vienna, 25-29th April 2005. Invited keynote speaker in a special Biofilms session, co-organised by the biogeochemistry section of the EGU and the International Society for Microbial Ecology. Cell-specific activity, photosynthesis and exopolymer dynamics in transient marine diatom biofilms.
    Aug 2003, Invited speaker, Microphytobenthos functioning colloquium, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Amsterdam.

    Additional information

    Other Activities:

    Research Grant history

    35. July 2012, £562,400 (£494,161 plus £64k NERC facilities costs), NERC, The key role of DOM in regulating microbial diversity, community structure and organic carbon cycling in arctic lakes (PI coIs McGenity, Dumbrell; Anderson, Loughborough (+ £186,406)).
    34. Feb 2012, £392,843 (£312,210, plus £86K NERC facilities costs), NERC, A hierarchical approach to the examination of the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem service flows across coastal margins. (PI, coIs McGenity, Dumbrell).
    33. Jan 2012, £714,318, NERC, The role of lateral exchange in modulating the seaward flux of CNP (CoI, Whitby, Nedwell)
    32. Aug. 2011. £40,000. Environment Agency. WFD status in TraC waters: assessment and new modes of monitoring. (PI)
    31. May 2011. £438,702, King Abdul Aziz University, Saudi Arabia. Envrionmental metagenomics and biotechnology of Rhazya stricta and its associated microbiota. (joint PIs, Mullineaux, McGenity)
    30. July 2010 £19,000, Brightlingsea Harbour Commissioners. Support for Colne Estuary Partnership (PI)
    29. Dec 2009. £1,580, Colchester Borough Council. Review of the effects of chlorination on sub-littoral benthic communities. (PI)
    28. April 2009 £8,000, Brightlingsea Harbour Commissioners. Support for Colne Estuary Partnership (£4K each from TDC and Anglian water). (PI)
    27. April 2008. £3,226, Colchester Oyster Fisheries, Plankton feeding by adult lobsters. (PI)
    26. March 2008. £10,000, Environment Agency. Faecal pollution indicators within Brightlingsea Creek. (PI)
    25. Dec 2007. £2,435, Brightlingsea Harbour commissioners Colne Estuary Partnership conference. (PI)
    24. June 2007 £335,272 NERC. Production, characterisation and novel roles of sea ice diatom exopolymers. (PI, joint with Thomas, Bangor)
    23. June 2007. The Royal Society, £620, Travel Grant.
    22. Dec 2006. £1500 Brightlingsea Harbour Commissioners. Ecology of native Oysters in the River Colne estuary (PI)
    21. June 2006. £10,770, Colchester Oyster Fisheries, Restoration of native Oysters in the river Colne estuary. (PI)
    20. Feb 2006 £64,458, NERC. Is increased chemical complexity of extracellular polymeric substances (EPS) related to increasing salinity in polar sea ice? (PI, with CoI D. Thomas, Bangor).
    19. Dec 2005 £267,152 NERC. Degradation of dissolved complex polysaccharides in estuarine littoral zones. (PI, with CoI McGenity).
    18. July 2005 £187,240 NERC. roles of DMSP and GBT in protection from photoinhibition/photooxidative stress and consequences for DMS and NH3 production. (SOLAS thematic programme, Co-I with R. Geider, N.R. Baker)
    17. June 2005. The Royal Society. £616. Travel Grant.
    16. Dec 2004 £2,438, Environment Agency. Analysis of estuarine phytoplankton data from the Thames Estuary. (PI)
    15. July 2004 £54,570, Sea Fish Industry Authority, Strategies to determine and alleviate the impact of faecal contamination on shellfish aquaculture. ((PI) with Drs Ball and Smith)
    14. July 2004 £193,583 NERC. Development of an instrument for sequential imaging of chlorophyll a fluorescence and Light-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) at the single cell level. (Co-I, with Oxborough, Geider)
    13. Dec 2003, £193,608 NERC. Strategies for tolerance to high light stress in diatoms (PI, with NR Baker).
    12. Sept 2003, £29,824 NERC. Continuous culture systems for studying microbial community dynamics in marine environments. (co PI with Geider et al.).
    11. Dec 2001. £199,404 NERC. Carbohydrate degradation and bacterial-algal coupling in intertidal sediments (PI, with Osborn and Ball).
    10. June 2001 $370,000, Exopolymer production by diatoms US National Science Foundation. £51,034, Essex component of award to Gretz (Michigan Tech.) and Underwood (Essex).
    9. June 2001 £25,500 Environment Agency. Ph.D. studentship, developing and estuarine trophic diatom index. (PI)
    8. Mar 1998 £142,879 NERC Determination of individual cell contributions to in situ microphytobenthic photosynthesis. (PI, with NR Baker, DM Paterson).
    7. Jun. 1997 £164,646 Dept. of Environment, Environmental limitation of phytoplankton in estuaries (CoI with DB Nedwell).
    6. Aug. 1996, £80,000 NERC Ecosystem Dynamics. Sublethal effects of herbicides on saltmarshes £80,000 awarded in first phase, (with C.F. Mason et al.).
    5. Oct. 1995, £64,356, National Rivers Authority, Investigation of sediment, phytobenthic and water quality interactions in the River Deben estuary, Suffolk. (CoI with DB Nedwell).
    4. June 1995, ECU 278,000. EU. MAST III proposal. Nitrogen cycling in estuaries. 1.4 mECU awarded, Essex component  £187,000 Jan. 1996 (PI with DB Nedwell).
    3. Jun. 1994, £142,000, Dept. of Environment, Influence of benthic algal biofilms on nutrient fluxes across the sediment-water interface (PI with DB Nedwell).
    2. Nov. 1993, £45,000, Anglian Water Services Ltd, Phosphorous cycling and algal dynamics in Alton reservoir (fully funded Ph.D., PI, with P Daldorph, Anglian Water).
    1. Nov. 1992, £156,126, NERC, Investigation of primary productivity by microphytobenthos in intertidal mudflats. (PI (joint with St. Andrews) Essex component, £52,239).

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