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QUADRAT DTP: Biodegradable bioplastics as emerging environmental pollutants

School of Biological Sciences

About the Project

The accumulation of macro and microplastics and the effects these have on organisms, food webs, nutrient and energy transfers, ecosystem function, and ultimately ecosystem services is now a global concern. Plastic debris has been found in sensitive ecosystems such as Antarctica, the deep oceans, and across a plethora of freshwater, terrestrial and marine organisms (1). Several actions have been taken in Europe to reduce the use of conventional plastics and many countries have banned their use. The plastics industry is pivoting towards the production of compostable biodegradable bioplastics (BBPs) with >2.11 million tonnes manufactured in 2018 alone (2,3). However, a concern with BBPs is that they may not degrade completely in natural ecosystems. Biodegradation is dependent on the type of polymer and the surrounding environment, biotic, and abiotic factors. In the aquatic environment, not all biodegradable plastics exhibit the same rates of decay and consequently, biodegradation of bioplastics can take an extended time.

The goal of this QUADRAT PhD project is to assess the implications of switching from oil-based plastics to newer biodegradable plastics. The objective is to exploit a sentinel fish species the shanny (Lipophrys pholis) to assess the impacts of the two most-produced biodegradable plastics, biobased (PLA - polylactic acid) and non-biobased (PBAT - polybutylene adipate terephthalate). This approach is based on pilot studies at QML showing shanny is easy to collect, house and breed, and are amenable to exposure experiments with various plastics, both ambient and in the diet. The PhD candidate will assess the impacts of bioplastics exposure via dietary intake on fish physiology, organismal stress, endocrine disruption, alterations in commensal gut microbial flora, and hepatic and gonadal transcriptional perturbations. These data will provide key insights into the potential toxic mechanisms of action of biodegradable plastics in comparison to traditional oil-based plastic and controls. The rationale is that once the key mechanisms of toxicity have been elucidated, a systems-level comprehension of phenotypic, metagenomic, and transcriptional perturbations in response to bioplastics exposure will be possible and this will guide the development of risk assessment frameworks using advanced machine learning models and exploiting the Adverse Outcome Pathway framework.

The project’s truly multidisciplinary approach provides an excellent opportunity for training in various aspects of fish biology, behaviour, ecology, state-of-the-art ’omics technologies, and advanced environmental and risk assessment analysis. The student will be at the leading edge of research on how BPP affects natural environments with the opportunity to influence practice and policy through interactions with a range of end-users and stakeholders. Moreover, it provides an exceptional opportunity for research training in both Northern Ireland and Scotland whereby the successful candidate will work collaboratively across disciplines and research cultures to generate new insights that transcend traditional boundaries. The project will combine aspects of marine biology, environmental chemistry, genetics, bioinformatics, and systems biology. Consequently, subject-specific training will be offered in these areas. This will comprise a mix of appropriate postgraduate level training (e.g. molecular biology, bioinformatics, genetics, biogeochemistry, computer science, environmental change) and ’hands-on’ training in the advanced systems-level methods used.

More project details are available here:

How to apply:

Note that applications should NOT be submitted directly to Queen’s.

Funding Notes

QUADRAT studentships are open to UK and international candidates (EU and non-EU). Funding will cover UK tuition fees/stipend/research & training support grant only.

Before applying please check full funding and eligibility information: View Website


1. Horton, A. A. et al. Science of the Total Environment 738, 140349 (2020)
2. Pagliaro, M. Chem. Today 37, (2019)
3. Kakadellis, S. et al. Journal of Cleaner Production 274, 122831 (2020)

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