PhD Studentship: Are Microplastics Novel Vectors of Disease to Marine Animals? - Bioscience (NERC GW4+ DTP funded)

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Sciences

Main Supervisor: Dr Ceri Lewis, Biosciences, CLES

Co-Supervisor: Dr Helen Findlay, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Co-Supervisor:  Dr Craig Baker-Austin Cefas, Thomas Maes, Cefas

Microplastics (plastic fragments 300 marine taxa worldwide. Microplastics can be rapidly colonised by bacteria from seawater, with evidence for the successional formation of plastisphere-specific bacterial assemblages1,2, including the pathogenic genus Vibrio2,3. Given the prevalence of microplastics in coastal waters and their potential to travel large distances across ocean barriers, microplastics have the potential to act as a global vector for disease transport. The potential for pathogen transfer to shellfish species via microplastics ingestion has not been studied to date and is a key question to address as part of the global effort to understand the risk posed by marine microplastics.

This project would investigate the potential for microplastics to act as a vector for pathogen delivery to bivalve species, namely mussels and oysters, under both current and near-future seawater conditions. It will also assess the combined impacts of both microplastics ingestion and ocean acidification (OA)/warming on the ability of oysters/mussels to mount an immune response against such pathogens via their known impacts on individual’s energetic reserves.

Briefly, seeding experiments utilising laboratory microcosms will assess the long-term (potentially >6 month) survival of bacteria associated with different microplastic particles. This data will be invaluable in informing risk assessment models regarding the long-term retention of bacteria in the natural environment. We will also conduct limited field studies to isolate and type bacterial colonies on selective media whilst conducting an analysis of respective polymers by ATR FT-IR. Strains of interest will be characterised and relevant virulence profiling conducted. Loading of shellfish species (oysters and mussels) will be conducted in house using microplastics to assess the ability of bivalve shellfish to filter and retain these particles (and their associated bacteria) in situ. Experiments will run under current and future (OA and warming) seawater conditions using dedicated OA established, exposure systems.

Case Award description:

This project will receive case support from Cefas. The student will receive training at the Cefas Weymouth labs in the virulence profiling and microbial aspects of the project and run some of the exposures in the Weymouth Cefas laboratories. The student will also have access to the regular Cefas cruises for microplastics sampling at sea.

Candidate: This project would suit someone with experience in marine biology or zoology interested in microplastics pollution, invertebrate physiology, microbiology and immunology.

3.5 year studentship: UK/EU/International tuition fees and an annual maintenance allowance at the Research Council rate of £14,553 per year

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South West England