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(EPSRC DTP) Investigating the fate and effects of biodegradable and non-biodegradable plastics in models of the gastrointestinal system

   Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health

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  Dr C Bussy, Prof C Mills, Prof P Gardner  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Due to unique properties and low cost production, plastic is one of the most common material in our every day life. However, as plastic use rises, so does plastic waste and plastic pollution. Recently, it has also become apparent that plastic pollution is not only affecting the environment and ecosystems but also humans. Plastics that degrade under environmental conditions into small particles called incidental micro/nanoplastics (MNPLs), have been identified in the water we drink, the food we eat, the air we breathe, and now in our blood (Leslie et al. 2022). Considering the small size of MNPLs and their limited biodegradability, it is believed that MNPLs are not only circulating in the blood but also accumulating in the human body. However, the impact of such continuous bioaccumulation is unknown. There are also concerns that MNPLs may carry organic pollutants such as perflouroalkylated substances (PFAS), which is associated with adverse health effects, but this has not been confirmed yet. Finally, plant-based plastics that are biodegradable have been proposed as a solution to the plastic pollution crisis. However, the safety profile of these bio-polymers is still debated with some studies reporting their potential to cause immunotoxicity as they degrade. Should these bio-plastics reach the human food chain in the form of MNPLs, it is unknown whether they will be safer than other MNPLs. In this project, we aim to address these knowledge gaps by generating a better understanding of the fate and effects of MNPLs after ingestion, with a focus on the gastrointestinal (GI) system, using relevant in vitro and in vivo models. Using the most advanced methodologies to identify MNPLs (e.g., Infra-Red coupled with Raman spectroscopies), the evolution of MNPLs in simulated GI fluids, GI cells or tissues will be investigated. Comparing fossil fuel based MNPLs (e.g., PET) versus plant based MNPLs (e.g., PLA), this project will explore the degradation/biopersistence kinetics of MNPLs in the different biological models, hence revealing the bioaccessibility of PFAS to absorb and desorb to/from MNPLs. Another objective will be to study the potential of these different MNPLs to cause toxic and/or immune reactions on the GI tract with a particular focus on the GI barrier integrity, intestinal homeostasis and gut mucosal immune system. It is expected that the generated outcomes will be relevant to future plastic waste management policies and regulations about level of MNPLs in the food chain or drinking water.



Entry Requirements

Applicants must have obtained, or be about to obtain, at least an upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject.

How to Apply

To be considered for this project you MUST submit a formal online application form. Please select EPSRC PhD Programme on the online application form. For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website (https://www.bmh.manchester.ac.uk/study/research/apply/).

Applications must be submitted by the deadline, as late applications will not be considered. Incomplete applications will not be considered. Please ensure your application is complete and includes all required documentation before submission.

Applicants interested in this project should make direct contact with the Primary Supervisor to arrange to discuss the project further as soon as possible. 

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Equality, diversity and inclusion is fundamental to the success of The University of Manchester, and is at the heart of all of our activities. The full Equality, diversity and inclusion statement can be found on the website https://www.bmh.manchester.ac.uk/study/research/apply/equality-diversity-inclusion/

Funding Notes

EPSRC DTP studentship with funding for a duration of 3.5 years to commence in September 2022. The studentship covers UK tuition fees and an annual minimum stipend £16,062 per annum. This scheme is open to both UK and international applicants. However, we are only able to offer a limited number of studentships to applicants outside the UK. Therefore, full studentships will only be awarded to exceptional quality candidates, due to the competitive nature of this scheme.


Chortarea, S., Kuru, OC, Netkueakul, W., Pelin, M., Keshavan, S., Song, Z., Ma, B., Gómes, J., Abalos, EV., de Luna, LAV., Loret, T., Fordham, A., Drummond, M., Kontis, N., Anagnostopoulos, G., Paterakis, G., Cataldi, P., Tubaro, A., Galiotis, C., Kinloch, I., Fadeel, B., Bussy, C., Kostarelos, K., Buerki-Thurnherr, T., Prato, M., Bianco, A., Wick, P.; Hazard Assessment of Abraded Thermoplastic Composites Reinforced with Reduced Graphene Oxide; Journal of Hazardous Materials ; preprint HAZMAT-D-22-01905; http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4036162
Fernandez A, Mills ENC, Koning F, Moreno FJ. Safety Assessment of Immune-Mediated Adverse Reactions to Novel Food Proteins. Trends Biotechnol. 2019 ;37(8):796-800. doi: 10.1016/j.tibtech.2019.03.010
Rosi F, Miliani C, Gardner P, Chieli A, Romani A, Ciabatta M, Trevisan R, Ferriani B, Richardson E, Cartechini L. Unveiling the composition of historical plastics through non-invasive reflection FT-IR spectroscopy in the extended near- and mid-Infrared spectral range. Anal Chim Acta. 2021;1169:338602. doi: 10.1016/j.aca.2021.338602
Mattar H, Padfield P, Simpson A, Mills ENC. 2021 The impact of a baked muffin matrix on the bioaccessibility and IgE reactivity of egg and peanut allergens. Food Chem. 362:129879.
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