Katherine Helliwell


Marine phytoplankton have vital roles in regulating our global climate, contributing almost half of the biosphere’s net primary production. I am interested in elucidating the fundamental molecular mechanisms that control phytoplankton growth to impact major biological processes in the ocean. A key focus of my work is on understanding interactions between microbes, how they evolve, and the metabolic processes that govern them.

I first became fascinated by biotic interactions during my BSc in Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol (First Class Honours). This led me to pursue a PhD and postdoc with Professor Alison Smith in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge. My PhD dissected the role organic micronutrients (vitamins) in governing interactions between phytoplankton and bacteria, and brought significant advances to our understanding of vitamin metabolism in microbes. I identified mechanisms through which vitamin requirements evolve in phytoplankton (Helliwell et al. Trends in Genetics. 2013; Helliwell et al. ISME Journal. 2015). This led us to propose a novel model for the evolution of metabolic dependencies in microorganisms arising as a result of microbial interactions (Kazamia, Helliwell & Smith. Ecology Letters. 2016). Moreover, this work led to the discovery of complex cycling of the vitamin cobalamin (vitamin B12) between two major phytoplankton classes: the cyanobacteria and eukaryotic algae, driving competitive dynamics between these organisms (Helliwell et al., Current Biology. 2016).

In November 2015 I joined the Marine Biological Association on an ERC funded project working with Professor Colin Brownlee. My current focus is on deciphering phytoplankton signalling mechanisms, to better understand how phytoplankton sense critical environmental variables.


Helliwell K. E.*, Pandhal J.*, Cooper M, Longworth J., Kudahl U., Russo D., Tomsett E., Bunbury F., Salmon D., Smirnoff N., Wright P., and Smith A. G., (2018). Quantitative proteomics reveals reduction in photosynthetic capacity of a B12-dependent alga grown in mutualistic co-culture with bacteria. New Phytologist. 217:599-612 (*joint co-authorship)

Helliwell K. E. (2017). The roles of B vitamins in phytoplankton nutrition: new perspectives and prospects. New Phytologist. 216:61-68 (*Corresponding author).

Brawley S. H., Blouin N. A., Ficko-Blean E., Wheeler G. L., Lohr M., Goodson H., Jenkins J., Blaby-Haas C. E., Helliwell K. E., et al., (2017). Thriving in a tough environment: Insights into the red algae from the genome of Porphyra. PNAS. 114: E6361-E6370

Helliwell K. E., Lawrence A., Holzer A., Kudahl U. J., Sasso S., Krautler B., Scanlan D., Warren M., Smith A. G. (2016). Cyanobacteria and eukaryotic algae use different chemical variants of vitamin B12. Current Biology. 26(8): 999-1008 (*Corresponding author).

Kazamia E., Helliwell K. E., Smith A. G. (2016). How mutualisms arise in phytoplankton communities: building eco-evolutionary principles for aquatic microbes. Ecology Letters. 19(7):810-822

Helliwell K. E.*, Collins S., Kazamia E., Purton S., Wheeler G. L., Smith A. G. (2015). Fundamental shift in vitamin B12 eco-physiology of a model alga demonstrated by experimental evolution. The ISME Journal. 9(6):1446-55 (*Corresponding author).

Link to Google Scholar for full publication list


Current Biology Dispatches feature Re-thinking vitamin B12 cycling in phytoplankton communities

New York Times: Vitamins' Old, Old Edge

Cambridge University Meet the Algae video


  • Invited lecturer for MRes module (2016-2017): Advanced Research in Marine Biology (Marine Biological Association, UK)
  • Guest lecturer Plymouth University Marine Microbiology module (2017)
  • Supervision of student research projects (2011-2017): Amy Gimson, Pippa Hothersall Harrison Bowers, Andre Holzer, Sam Coffin, Ellen Harrison and Freddy Bunbury.
  • Lecturer and examiner for the final-year undergraduate module (2015-2016): ‘Microbes and Genome Evolution module’ (Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge).

Post Doctoral Researcher
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