Joint studentship between the University of Western Australia and Bangor University
This fully-funded project addresses a topic of major international significance. The key aims of the studentship are therefore to (i) quantify the damage that microplastics (and bioplastics) have on plant and soil health; (ii) investigate whether the plastic additives (e.g. phthalates) are more toxic that the plastics themselves; (iii) measure rates of plastic and bioplastic degradation in soil, (iv) publish high quality journal papers to promote the student’s career, and (v) provide guidance to landowners, policymakers, and environmental agencies.
Contamination of the terrestrial, freshwater and marine biosphere by microplastics is now widely recognised as one of the world’s greatest pollution threats. Microplastics (plastic particles <5 mm in size) originate from the fragmentation of large plastic litter or from direct environmental release. Their potential impacts on terrestrial ecosystems remain largely unexplored despite the overwhelming evidence of their negative effect on marine organisms. Most plastics arriving in the oceans were produced, used, and often disposed on land. Consequently, it is within terrestrial systems that microplastics might actually be of greatest concern. Despite this, we know very little about how these microplastics behave in the plant-soil system.
Aid agencies operating in OECD-target countries have widely promoted the use of plastic soil coverings within agriculture to promote food security. Unwittingly, however, this has caused mass plastic pollution in agricultural soils. In China, where the problem is most severe, microplastic contamination and associated toxins now affects 20 million hectares of farmland with this predicted to increase by a further 10 million hectares over the next decade. From the available evidence, it is clear that we need to (i) better quantify the impact of this plastic contamination on plant and soil health, and (ii) demonstrate the benefits of more sustainable alternatives (i.e. bioplastics). The supervisory team consists of Professor Davey Jones, Professor Andrew Whiteley and Professor Daniel Murphy. Davey Jones specialises in understanding below-ground processes with specific focus on nutrient and carbon cycling in soil-plant-microbial systems and understanding how anthropogenic perturbation (e.g. climate change, pollution, extreme events) affect functioning of the terrestrial biosphere. His research is focused on finding solutions to combat the growing challenges faced by agroecosystems. Daniel Murphy specialises in microbial interactions in soil, the assessment of soil quality, nutrient management and has pioneered the use of stable isotope imaging in soil science. Andrew Whiteley is a microbiologist with extensive expertise in the manipulation and monitoring of soil microbial communities using molecular sequencing approaches. All staff are based in the School of Agriculture and Environment.
Project goals Some key questions the study aims to answer include: 1. How do microplastics affect plants and soil functioning and is there any threat to human health? 2. How quickly to microplastics degrade in the environment and can this be accelerated using superdegrading microorganisms? 3. What contaminants are there in microplastics and do these represent a bigger threat than the plastics themselves? 4. Use the information above to provide guidance to policymakers, regulators and land owners about the threat of microplastics in the terrestrial environment.
As part of this project, the successful PhD applicant will: 1. Conduct fieldwork in Western Australia to collect material for use in experiments. 2. Use stable and radio-isotopes to monitor plastic degradation in soil. 3. Learn the latest imaging technologies to visualise plastic behaviour in soil. 4. Gain experience in molecular biology to understand how microplastics affect soil and plant health. 5. Undertake some experiments in the UK at established microplastic field trial sites. 6. The applicant will be expected to write a minimum of three peer-reviewed publications.
Requirements specific to this project include: One of the key criteria for this PhD studentship is academic excellence. The candidate will need to have completed an Honours or Masters-level degree at time of admission. Preferably this should be in Biology, Environmental Science, Soil Science, Plant Biology, Agriculture, Ecology or a related subject. Experience in undertaking and writing up experiments. Fieldwork experience is desirable. Leadership skills and the ability to work in a team is a requirement. Good understanding of statistics and statistical models is preferable. Applicants having already published in a scientific journal will be highly considered, however, this is not a pre-requisite. The studentship is based at the University of Western Australia but the student should be comfortable with long-distance travel (to the UK) to undertake collaborative work and also national travel to attend conferences etc.