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Environmental degradation of plastics in coastal ecosystems

Project Description

Research Environment

Queen Mary University of London is one of the UK’s leading research-focused higher education institutions, a member of the elite Russell Group of UK universities, and ranked joint 9th in the UK in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. Queen Mary has a strong tradition of materials-based research which continues to grow successfully with multidisciplinary collaborative research programs, underpinned by centres of excellence such as the Materials Research Institute ( The Chemistry Department is part of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, within the Faculty of Science and Engineering, and it is housed in a modern building, equipped with state-of-the art analytical facilities.

This PhD position is one of four parts of a mini Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) funded by Queen Mary. BIOdegradable Plastics as emerging Environmental Pollutants (BioPEP) is a multidisciplinary consortium of 6 Queen Mary academics from three schools (SBCS, SEMS and Geography) partnered with 7 non-academic teams and 1 European team, that aims to evaluate the potential environmental impact of biodegradable plastics.

Training and Development

This is a truly interdisciplinary CDT, where material chemists will test bioplastic materials and provide them to molecular biologists to study their degradation. The impacts of these differentially degraded bioplastics will then be tested on abiotic river habitats by geographers, and the effect on aquatic communities characterised by ecologists and microbiologists. Each student will have three supervisors, including a senior and a junior academic from different but related fields and one industrial partner, who will ensure the industrial impact of the PhD project. Each student will spend at least two months seconded at a partner industry, which will provide practical skills and an essential network of contacts for future employability.

Project Details

Large quantities of plastic waste is transported and disposed of in coastal ecosystems. We know little about the transportation of these bioplastics in these environments and how do the breakdown trajectories of biodegradable material compare to traditional plastics. Several microbial species have been shown to degrade bioplastics but we do not know the actual diversity, their metabolism, mode of life (biofilm or suspended), and the impact of this process on biogeochemical cycles and ecosystem services. These aspects will be addressed using field sampling and microcosms to understand the transport and behavior of microplastics in sediment and aquatic samples, microbial diversity and distribution of bioplastic-degrading populations. Key methodologies will include the use of correlated volumetric microscopy techniques (e.g., X-ray microtomography in the School of Geography and FIBnt in the Nanovision Centre) as well as high-throughput amplicon sequencing and metatranscriptomics to elucidate the bioplastic-degradation pathways of microorganisms.


Applications are invited from outstanding candidates with or expecting to receive a first or upper-second class honours degree in Ecology, Biology, Environmental Sciences or Mirobiology. Candidates currently studying or holding a Master degree will be given priority in the selection process.
A strong interest in multidisciplinary projects and a passion for microbiology and environmental sciences are essential. Desire to work across disciplines is also a priority.

Applicants from outside of the UK are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our English language requirements page for details:

The School of Biological and Chemical Sciences is committed to promoting diversity in science; we have been awarded an Athena Swan Bronze Award. We positively welcome applications from underrepresented groups.

Funding Notes

This studentship is open to UK/EU applicants and is funded by Queen Mary University of London. It will cover tuition fees, and provide an annual tax-free maintenance allowance for 3 years at the Research Council rate (£17,009 in 2019/20).

How good is research at Queen Mary University of London in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 23.39

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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