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PhD Studentship: Fate, Transformation and Effect of Microplastics on Microbial Communities in the Environment

University of Essex - School of Life Sciences

Qualification Type: PhD
Location: Colchester
Funding for: International Students
Funding amount: Not Specified
Hours: Full Time
Placed On: 10th October 2019
Closes: 7th January 2020
Reference: 11299

Supervisory Team:

Dr Corinne Whitby (University of Essex)

Dr Philippe Laissue (University of Essex)

Professor Richard Thompson (Plymouth University)

Dr Andrew Mayes (University of East Anglia)

Microplastics enter ecosystems, where they affect microorganisms and their processes. Microbial-driven ammonia-oxidation is fundamental to the environmental cycling of nitrogen (N) and ammonia-oxidisers are highly sensitive to environmental perturbations. Biosludges, are often applied to agricultural soils as fertilisers, but biosludges can accumulate microplastics during waste treatment processes, with potential effects on ammonia-oxidiser communities and activity. Currently, little is known about how microplastics affect ammonia-oxidation especially in environments where biosludges are applied or are inputted (e.g. agricultural land, run-off into freshwaters).


1. Characterise the effect of microplastics on ammonia-oxidiser communities and nitrification processes.

2. Characterise the fate and biotransformation of microplastics in the environment.

The student will conduct a combination of field sampling (river sediments, biosludges, agricultural soils) and mesocosm experiments encompassing various environmental perturbations (i.e. nutrient and microplastic inputs). Changes in ammonia-oxidiser abundance and diversity will be characterised using qPCR and sequencing of phylogenetic and functional genes and related to ammonia-oxidation rates. Fluorescence microscopy/ FISH will determine the spatial distribution of microorganisms in relation to microplastic particles (Essex). Size/physical appearance, spectroscopic signatures and polymer transformation will also be measured.

The candidate will join the Ecology and Environmental Microbiology Group (Essex) with further training at UEA, Plymouth and Anglian Water. The student will learn a suite of molecular, chemical and imaging techniques. Training will include fieldwork, qPCR, high throughput sequencing, bioinformatics and bioimaging (fluorescence microscopy) to characterise microbial communities in relation to microplastics. The student will be trained inFT-IR spectroscopy (UEA) for microplastic particle characterisation and polymer chemistry, spend time in the microplastic facility (Plymouth) and three months at Anglian Water to gain business experience and skills in resource management. The student will also develop other skills in experimental design, data analysis and interpretation, scientific writing, communication to specialist and non-specialist audiences and have access to training courses across institutes.

A highly motivated student with a background in Microbiology, Biochemistry, ENV or related discipline, who is keen to learn new skills and engage with industry. The candidate will have good communication skills and be self-motivated. For enquiries:

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, and will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.

Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 18/19 February 2020.

Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - UK/EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award.

Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses in the subject area.

Further information, visit

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