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GW4 FRESH CDT studentship: Cascading effects of micro- and nano-plastics on lipid quality and transfer through freshwater planktonic ecosystems

Project Description

Despite growing global concern about the occurrence of small plastic particles (nano- and micro-plastics) in the world’s seas, rivers and lakes, there has been limited research into understanding any adverse effects on living organisms. Investigations of the consequences for aquatic food webs are even rarer.

Recent, unique research at Cardiff University has shown how widespread algae are affected by some microplastics – specifically through changes in the composition of their lipids. These molecules are important in the structure and functioning of all cell membranes, including the plasma membrane, chloroplast and mitochondrial membranes, as well as in the waxes and steryl esters that provide structure to the extracellular layer and cell wall. The synthesis of essential fatty acids (FAs) also appears to be disrupted.

These discoveries not only reveal a fundamental mechanism through which plastic could affect algae, but also suggests that plastic pollution could disrupt whole freshwater food webs from the bottom upwards. Zooplankton, for example, depend on high-quality algae for their food and growth, in turn providing important biomass for predators.

This cutting-edge PhD will explore such effects further, investigating i) how different types and sizes of plastic (nano- to micro) affect the lipid composition of different algae and ii) assessing the potential for cascading effects between freshwater algae and zooplankton using microcosms, mesocosms and actual field conditions.

The supervisory team from Cardiff University and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology combines leading expertise in lipid chemistry (Dr Irina Guschina), plastics in freshwaters (Dr Heidrun Feuchtmayr, Prof Steve Ormerod) and lake planktonic ecology (Dr Steve Thackeray).

We seek a first class student, ideally with postgraduate experience, interested in the interface between molecular biology and aquatic ecology and who wishes to make a real difference through their research – particular in understanding the effects of micro- and nanoplastics on individuals, freshwater ecosystems and ecosystem processes. The student will gain experience of experimental design, planktonic ecology, biochemistry, lipidomics, chromatography, molecular biology, microscopy. As well as being part of the FRESH freshwater bioscience community, the student will join strong early-career communities in planktonic ecology, environmental biochemistry and ecology. The project also offers the opportunity for short internships with the stakeholder partners, including Cardiff Harbour Authority.

Studentships will last for 3.5 years full-time or the equivalent period part-time.

The application deadline is 9am on 16th December 2019.


Applicants must apply directly to the CDT and not via Cardiff University’s online application system. Please use the below link which will take you to the relevant page to place an application to the CDT directly:

For more details on how to apply, please visit the GW4 Fresh website:

Funding Notes

Full UKRI stipend and fees to be funded for the duration of the studentship (3.5 years), plus RTSG of £11,000.

NERC-funded studentships are subject to UKRI eligibility requirements i.e. you should be a citizen of the UK or other EU country and have been residing in the UK for the last 3 years.

This project is in competition with others available across GW4 FRESH CDT; the projects which receive the best applicants will be awarded the funding. This year we are advertising 25 projects for 14 studentships.

Please note there are mandatory training activities during the first six months.

How good is research at Cardiff University in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 54.70

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

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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