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Micro- and nanoplastics: the fate and the impact on marine life


Project Description

By 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics, 6.3 billion tons of which had already become waste. Of that waste total, only 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. The quantity of plastics on our planet will continue to grow, reaching 40 billion tons by 2050. Plastics is now a major feature of the changed, anthropocene, state of our planet.

While attention has now been drawn to macro-plastic debris accumulating in oceanic gyres and on coasts, or causing damage to wildlife, the insidious effects of plastics at a much smaller scale, the micro- and nanoplastics, go relatively unnoticed. These particles come from a variety of sources, including from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces. Although they are largely unseen, small particles (<1 mm) have become ubiquitous in the marine environment over several decades.

They can have negative consequences for marine ecosystems and humans through physical damage to organisms that ingest them and chemical transfer of toxicants. Recent studies have also shown that micro-and nanoplastics can interact directly with biological systems, e.g., with proteins that are important for fat metabolism, immune defense and blood coagulation, and may alter the behaviour, physiology and metabolism. Plastic particles have been found in a third of UK-caught fish such as cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish, and people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year, and have been recently identified in human stools.

Plastic pollution has emerged as a real threat to Earth’s ecosystems, especially in the ocean. However, little is known so far about micro- and nanoplastics once they enter biological systems. It has been hypothesized that ingestion of microplastic increases exposure of aquatic organisms to hydrophobic contaminants but how these particles transport, accumulate and interact with organisms, and how these impact on the chemical environment with consequent changes to growth, behaviour, reproduction, and physiology, remain unclear.

This is multidisciplinary research involving chemistry, nanoscience and biology, which will be carried out through collaborations between the teams in Chemistry and NPB at UoL. The project will use zebrafish as a model system, and will focus on particles of commonly used plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE) and polystyrene (PS). Particles ranging from 50 nm – 1 mm will be prepared by a dissolution and reprecipitation procedure. To enhance the visibility and ease the detection of particles in fish, highly fluorescent nanoparticles will be synthesized and will be incorporated into plastic particles.

The project will start by studying the pathways of plastic particles in zebrafish and how they accumulate by using confocal microscopy. By comparison with zebrafish in clean water, the impact on behaviours such as foraging, social and reproduction will be monitored. In addition, we will measure behaviours including aggression, anxiety, boldness, sociality and learning using protocols already established at NPB. The changes on chemicals and gene expressions of organisms that host plastic particles will also be studied, allowing the prediction of potential hazards of micro- and nanoplastics to human health.

We already have collaborations with several industrial partners in relevant areas such as polymer degradation (with Polymateria). A specific aim of the project is to predict how the micro- and nanoplastic particles can influence human health, which might have strong indication for the consumption of plastic-related goods such as chewing gums and toothbrushes and may have strong influence of the corresponding industry. We intend to cultivate this interest to generate commercial sponsorship and to explore converting the project to another CASE studentship.

Entry requirements

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a UK Bachelor Degree 2:1 or better in a relevant subject. The University of Leicester English language requirements apply where applicable.

How to apply

Please refer to the CENTA Studentship application information on our website for details of how to apply.

As part of the application process you will need to:
• Complete a CENTA Funding form – to be uploaded to your PhD application
• Complete and submit your PhD application online. Indicate project CENTA2-CHEM4-YANG in the funding section.
• Complete an online project selection form Apply for CENTA2-CHEM4-YANG

Funding Notes

This studentship is one of a number of fully funded studentships available to the best UK and EU candidates available as part of the NERC DTP CENTA consortium. The award will provide tuition fees as the UK/EU rate and a stipend at the RCUK rates for a period of 3.5 years.

For more details of the CENTA consortium please see the CENTA website: View Website.

Applicants must meet requirements for both academic qualifications and residential eligibility: View Website

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