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Effects of microplastic on ecosystem services in salt marshes (NOLTESU20SCI50)

Project Description

Microplastic (MP) pollution has generated huge scientific and public interest in recent years. Early research mainly focused on the marine environment, studying MP abundance and impacts on fauna. Recently, more efforts have been directed to terrestrial ecosystems and effects of MP on soil and vegetation (Rillig et al. 2019). In contrast, studies in the coastal zone mainly study unvegetated systems such as beaches, while intertidal vegetated ecosystems, such as salt marshes and mangroves, have been largely overlooked. However, effects of MP on the soil and vegetation could have a major influence on valuable ecosystem services in these environments.

The ecosystem services provided by salt marshes play a crucial role in both climate change mitigation and adaptation. These ecosystems are extremely efficient in carbon sequestration (Macleaod et al. 2011), which has led to the coining of the term ‘blue carbon’. Their high carbon sequestration potential is based on the high productivity of the vegetation, in combination with a low decomposition rate of organic matter, since soils are often anaerobic. Additionally, salt marshes can be used in climate change adaptation (Temmerman et al. 2013), as the vegetation provides coastal protection through wave dampening.

If salt marshes erode, however, both the stored carbon and their coastal protection function are lost. Therefore, we need to understand how microplastic pollution affects ecosystem services in salt marshes. Does it affect the soil properties and thereby the stability of the soil against erosion and the efficiency of carbon sequestration? Is microplastic affecting the salt marsh vegetation either directly by reducing germination or indirectly via effects on soil properties? We aim to answer these questions in an interdisciplinary setting, using techniques developed at UEA and Cefas (Maes et al 2017).

Type of programme: PhD
Start date: October 2020
Mode of study: Full-time
Studentship length: 3.5 years
Entry requirements: Acceptable first degree in Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Earth Sciences, Environmental Chemistry or other courses delivering similar knowledge and skills. The standard minimum entry requirement is 2:1

Funding Notes

This PhD studentship is jointly funded for three and a half years by Faculty of Science and Cefas. Funding comprises home/EU tuition fees, an annual stipend of £15,009 and £1000 per annum to support research training. Overseas applicants may apply but are required to fund the difference between home/EU and overseas tuition fees (which for 2020-21 are detailed on the University’s fees pages at View Website . Please note tuition fees are subject to an annual increase).


1. Rillig, Matthias C., et al. "Microplastic effects on plants." New Phytologist (2019).
2. Mcleod, Elizabeth, et al. "A blueprint for blue carbon: toward an improved understanding of the role of vegetated coastal habitats in sequestering CO2." Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 9.10 (2011): 552-560.
3. Temmerman, Stijn, et al. "Ecosystem-based coastal defence in the face of global change." Nature 504.7478 (2013): 79.
4. Maes, Thomas, et al. "A rapid-screening approach to detect and quantify microplastics based on fluorescent tagging with Nile Red." Scientific Reports 7 (2017): 44501.

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