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Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

Dr Katherine Helliwell

Dr Katherine Helliwell

NERC Independent Research Fellow, Joint University of Exeter/Marine Biological Association Research Fellow

 01752 698639



Dr Katherine Helliwell is a molecular microbiologist focussed primarily on the fundamental biology of photosynthetic marine microbes, which critically underpin marine ecosystems. She pursued a PhD and postdoc with Professor Alison Smith in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge. During this time she dissected the role of organic micronutrients (vitamins) in governing interactions between phytoplankton and bacteria, and brought significant advances to our understanding in vitamin metabolism in aquatic microbes. Following her time in Cambridge, Katherine joined the MBA as a senior postdoctoral researcher working on phytoplankton signalling mechanisms with Professor Colin Brownlee and Dr Glen Wheeler. In summer 2018, Katherine was awarded a NERC Independent Research Fellowship. She recently joined Exeter Biosciences as a Joint University of Exeter/Marine Biological Association Research Fellow.  Moving forward as a new lab, Katherine intends to couple her expertise in studying interactions between marine microbes, and phytoplankton signalling mechanisms, to better understand how marine microbes sense and respond to their environment.


2007-2011 PhD Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge

2004-2007 BSc Biological Sciences, University of Bristol (first class honours)


Jan 2019- NERC Independent Research Fellow

Jan 2019- Joint University of Exeter/Marine Biological Association Research Fellow

Nov 2015-Dec 2018 ERC-funded Postdoctoral researcher, Marine Biological Association, Plymouth

Oct 2011-Oct 2015 BBSRC-funded Postdoctoral researcher, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge

Oct 2007-Nov 2011 PhD Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge

2004-2007 BSc Biological Sciences, University of Bristol

Research group links

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Research interests

Marine phytoplankton are an evolutionarily and metabolically diverse group of organisms that play vital roles in regulating global ocean processes. Despite their significant ecological importance, basic aspects of phytoplankton biology, physiology and genetics remain unexplored. A key motivation of my work is elucidating the fundamental molecular mechanisms that control how phytoplankton interact with their environment and other planktonic microbes in the ocean, how these interactions evolve, and the metabolic processes that govern them.

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Journal articles

Branscombe L, Harrison EL, Choong ZYD, Swink C, Keys M, Widdicombe C, Wilson WH, Cunliffe M, Helliwell K (2024). Cryptic bacterial pathogens of diatoms peak during senescence of a winter diatom bloom. New Phytol, 241(3), 1292-1307. Abstract.  Author URL.
Brownlee C, Helliwell KE, Meeda Y, McLachlan D, Murphy EA, Wheeler GL (2023). Regulation and integration of membrane transport in marine diatoms. Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology, 134, 79-89. Abstract.
Kleiner FH, Helliwell KE, Chrachri A, Hopes A, Parry-Wilson H, Gaikwad T, Mieszkowska N, Mock T, Wheeler GL, Brownlee C, et al (2022). Cold-induced [Ca2+]cyt elevations function to support osmoregulation in marine diatoms. Plant Physiology, 190(2), 1384-1399.
Helliwell KE (2022). Emerging trends in nitrogen and phosphorus signalling in photosynthetic eukaryotes. Trends in Plant Science, 28(3), 344-358.
Kottmeier DM, Chrachri A, Langer G, Helliwell KE, Wheeler GL, Brownlee C (2022). Reduced H+ channel activity disrupts pH homeostasis and calcification in coccolithophores at low ocean pH. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 119(19). Abstract.  Author URL.
Helliwell KE, Harrison EL, Christie-Oleza JA, Rees AP, Kleiner FH, Gaikwad T, Downe J, Aguilo-Ferretjans MM, Al-Moosawi L, Brownlee C, et al (2021). A Novel Ca2+ Signaling Pathway Coordinates Environmental Phosphorus Sensing and Nitrogen Metabolism in Marine Diatoms. Current Biology, 31(5), 978-989.e4.
Helliwell KE, Kleiner FH, Hardstaff H, Chrachri A, Gaikwad T, Salmon D, Smirnoff N, Wheeler GL, Brownlee C (2021). Spatiotemporal patterns of intracellular Ca<sup>2+</sup> signalling govern hypo‐osmotic stress resilience in marine diatoms. New Phytologist, 230(1), 155-170. Abstract.
Helliwell KE, Chrachri A, Koester JA, Wharam S, Taylor AR, Wheeler GL, Brownlee C (2020). A Novel Single-Domain Na+-Selective Voltage-Gated Channel in Photosynthetic Eukaryotes. Plant Physiol, 184(4), 1674-1683. Abstract.  Author URL.
Bunbury F, Helliwell KE, Mehrshahi P, Davey MP, Salmon DL, Holzer A, Smirnoff N, Smith AG (2020). Responses of a Newly Evolved Auxotroph of Chlamydomonas to B12 Deprivation. Plant Physiol, 183(1), 167-178. Abstract.  Author URL.
Chrachri A, Koester J, Wharam S, Verret F, Taylor A, Wheeler G, Brownlee C, Helliwell K (2019). Alternative mechanisms for fast Na+/Ca2+ signalling in eukaryotes via a novel class of single-domain voltage-gated channels. Current Biology, 29, 1505-1505.
Wheeler G, Helliwell K, Brownlee C (2019). Calcium signalling in algae. Perspectives in Phycology, 6(1-2), 1-10.
Leebens-Mack JH, Barker MS, Carpenter EJ, Deyholos MK, Gitzendanner MA, Graham SW, Grosse I, Li Z, Melkonian M, Mirarab S, et al (2019). One thousand plant transcriptomes and the phylogenomics of green plants. Nature, 574(7780), 679-685. Abstract.
Cooper M, Kazamia E, Helliwell K, Kudahl J, Sayer A, Wheeler G, Smith A (2018). Cross-exchange of B-vitamins underpins a mutualistic interaction between Ostreococcus tauri and Dinoroseobacter shibae. ISME Journal, 13, 334-345.
Helliwell KE, Pandhal J, Cooper MB, Longworth J, Kudahl UJ, Russo DA, Tomsett EV, Bunbury F, Salmon DL, Smirnoff N, et al (2018). Quantitative proteomics of a B12 -dependent alga grown in coculture with bacteria reveals metabolic tradeoffs required for mutualism. New Phytol, 217(2), 599-612. Abstract.  Author URL.
Wells ML, Potin P, Craigie JS, Raven JA, Merchant SS, Helliwell KE, Smith AG, Camire ME, Brawley SH (2017). Algae as nutritional and functional food sources: revisiting our understanding. Journal of Applied Phycology, 29(2), 949-982. Abstract.
Brawley SH, Blouin NA, Ficko-Blean E, Wheeler GL, Lohr M, Goodson HV, Jenkins JW, Blaby-Haas CE, Helliwell KE, Chan CX, et al (2017). Insights into the red algae and eukaryotic evolution from the genome of Porphyra umbilicalis (Bangiophyceae, Rhodophyta). Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 114(31), E6361-E6370. Abstract.  Author URL.
Helliwell KE (2017). Tansley insight: the roles of B vitamins in phytoplankton nutrition: new perspectives and prospects. New Phytologist, 216(1), 62-68. Abstract.
Helliwell KE, Lawrence AD, Holzer A, Kudahl UJ, Sasso S, Kräutler B, Scanlan DJ, Warren MJ, Smith AG (2016). Cyanobacteria and Eukaryotic Algae Use Different Chemical Variants of Vitamin B<inf>12</inf>. Current Biology, 26(8), 999-1008. Abstract.
Kazamia E, Helliwell KE, Purton S, Smith AG (2016). How mutualisms arise in phytoplankton communities: building eco-evolutionary principles for aquatic microbes. Ecology letters, 19(7), 810-822. Abstract.
Nguyen GTDT, Scaife MA, Helliwell KE, Smith AG (2016). Role of riboswitches in gene regulation and their potential for algal biotechnology. Journal of Phycology, 52(3), 320-328. Abstract.
Scaife MA, Nguyen GTDT, Rico J, Lambert D, Helliwell KE, Smith AG (2015). Establishing Chlamydomonas reinhardtii as an industrial biotechnology host. Plant Journal, 82(3), 532-546. Abstract.
Helliwell KE, Collins S, Kazamia E, Purton S, Wheeler GL, Smith AG (2015). Fundamental shift in vitamin B<inf>12</inf> eco-physiology of a model alga demonstrated by experimental evolution. ISME Journal, 9(6), 1446-1455. Abstract.
Helliwell KE, Scaife MA, Sasso S, Araujo APU, Purton S, Smith AG (2014). Unraveling vitamin B12-responsive gene regulation in algae. Plant Physiology, 165(1), 388-397. Abstract.
Helliwell KE, Wheeler GL, Smith AG (2013). Widespread decay of vitamin-related pathways: Coincidence or consequence?. Trends in Genetics, 29(8), 469-478. Abstract.
Helliwell KE, Wheeler GL, Leptos KC, Goldstein RE, Smith AG (2011). Insights into the evolution of vitamin B <inf>12</inf> auxotrophy from sequenced algal genomes. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 28(10), 2921-2933. Abstract.
Kazamia E, Helliwell KE, Smith AG (2010). Keeping a clear head with vitamin B<inf>12</inf>. Biochemist, 32(6), 20-24. Abstract.


Helliwell KE, Shibl AA, Amin SA (2022). The Diatom Microbiome: New Perspectives for Diatom-Bacteria Symbioses. In  (Ed) The Molecular Life of Diatoms, Springer Nature, 679-712.

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