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Do microplastics enhance marine trace gas production? (HOPKINSUPML20ARIES)

Project Description


Marine plastic pollution can now be found throughout the world’s oceans, from the remote polar seas to the deepest depths, and there is great concern about the potential effects on the marine environment. The potential for microplastics, often derived from the breakdown of larger plastic pieces, to cause harm to marine organisms and influence broader-scale biogeochemical processes is not well established. This project will significantly increase our understanding of how microplastics affect not only the functioning of marine microbiota but also the production of climatically-active trace gases, which influence the formation of atmospheric particles and the atmosphere’s ability to self-cleanse.


In this novel, innovative and exciting project the student will examine the role of plastics on the production of trace gases by marine phytoplankton and bacteria. Gases, including dimethyl sulfide (DMS), halocarbons, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), will be considered, all of which play important roles in atmospheric chemistry and climate after their release from seawater and transformation in the atmosphere.

The research will primarily be laboratory-based at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, providing access to brand new chemistry and ultraclean microplastic facilities, and focussing on single, model phytoplankton and bacteria species, to establish the role of plastics in the formation of trace gases. The successful candidate will learn how to culture and conduct experiments with microbes, assess phytoplankton physiology, and to sample and analyse trace gases using established analytical techniques. The student will also assess how biofilms influence trace gas production, using both laboratory cultures and by ‘seasoning’ plastics in the natural environment. PML’s state-of-the-art Single Cell Genomics facility will be used to screen for diagnostic markers for trace gas biosynthesis genes.


The ideal candidate will have an aptitude and enthusiasm for hands-on practical work, problem solving and a keen desire to work with analytical instrumentation.

More information on the supervisor for this project:
Type of programme: PhD
Start date: October 2020
Mode of study: Full-time or part-time
Studentship length: 3.5 years
Eligibility requirements: First degree in Marine or Environmental Sciences, Analytical Chemistry or General Chemistry

Funding Notes

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, and will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout 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 and 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 an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses in the subject area.

For further information, please visit View Website


Cole et al. (2011) Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: a review. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62 (12), 2588-2597.

Savoca et al. (2016) Marine plastic debris emits a keystone infochemical for olfactory foraging seabirds. Science Advances, 2 (11) doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1600395.

Procter et al. (2019) Smells good enough to eat: Dimethylsulfide (DMS) Enhances Copepod Ingestion Rate of Microplastics. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 138, 1-6.

Zettler et al. (2013) Life in the “Plastisphere”: Microbial Communities on Plastic Marine Debris. Environmental Science and Technology, 47 (13), 7137-7146.

Yokota et al. (2017) Finding the missing piece of the aquatic plastic pollution puzzle: Interaction between primary producers and microplastics. Limnology & Oceanography Letters, 2 (4), 91 – 104.

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