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Chemical analysis and bioaccumulation of ‘forever chemicals’ in aquatic organisms

   Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience

   Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Background and Motivation

Perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that are manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the world (e.g. textiles, household products, food processing, construction, electronics). People can be exposed to PFAS in different ways, including food (e.g. fish, fruit, eggs, and egg products) and drinking water, which can lead to significant health effects (Sunderland et al., 2019). Because of their extreme persistence in the environment, PFAS are often referred to as the ‘forever chemicals’. Due to toxicological effects of PFAS, their production is restricted in the Western countries, but they still can be imported in consumer goods such as carpets, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber and plastics. Among a range of PFAS, perfluoro-2-propoxypropanoic acid (also known as GenX), which is mainly produced to make nonstick coating surfaces for cookware, was introduced commercially as a replacement for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Since it was introduced only recently, the effects of GenX in biological systems (incl. humans) remain widely unknown. GenX was proposed as a safe substitute for PFOA, mainly due to its significantly lower biopersistence as compared to PFOA. GenX chemicals have been found in surface water, groundwater, finished drinking water, rainwater, and air emissions in some areas. One of the major challenges with the control and understanding the impact of GenX and its by-products is absence of analytical techniques allowing their identification at trace level concentrations, especially in complex biological matrices. Another major challenge is understanding of PFAS, especially GenX effect on marine environment and more specifically on aquatic organisms.

Aim of the Project

The aims of this work are (i) to develop a platform for the analysis of PFAS (incl. GenX) at environmentally realistic concentrations (i.e. trace levels) in water and complex biological matrices and (ii) to investigate bioaccumulation, bioconcentration and toxicity of PFAS on marine bio-organisms.

Research Questions

·      What are the best instrument’s parameters (e.g. chromatographic conditions, MS parameters, ionisation sources) for identification of PFAS at trace levels in environmental and biological samples?

·      What are the best extractions techniques (e.g. Solid Phase Extraction, Accelerated Solvent Extraction, Liquid-Liquid Extraction) for the analysis of PFAS?

·      How pollutants (PFAS) enter a food chain and relate to the accumulation of contaminants, in biological tissues by aquatic organisms (i.e. marine amphipods), from sources such as water and food?

·      How PFAS (incl. GenX and its degradation products) accumulate in a biological organism (i.e. marine amphipods) over time and their toxicological effects at environmentally realistic ambient concentrations?

Research Objectives

·      Develop analytical methodologies and screening platforms based on the cutting-edge High-Resolution Mass Spectrometry for identification of PFAS (incl. GenX);

·      Investigate how PFAS enter a food chain and relate to the accumulation of contaminants in biological tissues of aquatic organisms (i.e. marine amphipods), from sources such as water and food.

·      Investigate how PFAS (incl. GenX and its degradation products) can be accumulated in a biological organism over time.

Programme Methodology is summarised as followed:

·    Perform literature review on PFAS (e.g. available analytical techniques for their analysis, bioaccumulation in aquatic organisms);

·    Training on sampling, sample preparation, and HRMS and hyphenated analytical techniques;

·    Training on advanced data analysis tools (PCA, PMF, HCA);

·    Development of analytical methods and a platform for targeted and untargeted screening of PFAS;

·    Training on cultivation of test organisms and exposure to compounds of interests

·    Extraction and analysis of test organisms for PFAS using developed HRMS methods

·     Verification of the possible adverse effects and their relationship to the measured internal doses.

·    Disseminate obtained results through publishing project findings in journals and presenting at national/international conferences and scientific meetings,


·      UK/EU/International graduates with the required entry requirements

Entry criteria for applicants to PHD 

·      A minimum of a 2:1 first degree in a relevant discipline/subject area with a minimum 60% mark in the project element or equivalent with a minimum 60% overall module average.

the potential to engage in innovative research and to complete the PhD within a 3.5 years

·      a minimum of English language proficiency (IELTS overall minimum score of 7.0 with a minimum of 6.5 in each component)

Additional items for candidate specification

  • BSc/MSc in a science-based subject area (Chemistry, Biology, Forensic Science and/or Environmental science)
  • Strong interest in interdisciplinary research
  • Experience in laboratory and experimental work
  • Some knowledge of statistics and data analysis
  • Ability to work independently and in a team
  • Effective time management and organisation skills

Funding Notes

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