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QUADRAT DTP CASE: Biodegradable micro and nanoplastics as emerging environmental pollutants

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Prof G Hardiman, Prof Stuart Piertney, Prof J Dick  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The accumulation of micro-nano-plastics and the effects these have on organisms, food webs, nutrient and energy transfers, ecosystem function, and ultimately ecosystem services are 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 to reduce or ban the use of conventional plastics. The plastics industry has pivoted towards the production of compostable biodegradable bioplastics with >2.11 million tonnes manufactured in 2018 alone (2,3). The environmental and ecological effects of BMNPs, the adsorption and release of toxic substances, and the role of BMPs in transporting legacy contaminants remains to be elucidated. In the aquatic environment, not all biodegradable plastics exhibit the same rates of decay and consequently, biodegradation can take an extended time.

Many legacy compounds, such as polychlorinated naphthalene (PCN), can interact with BMNP making synergistic effects highly likely. The goal of this QUADRAT PhD 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) informed by the zebrafish toxicology model to assess the impacts of the two most-produced biodegradable plastics, biobased (PLA - polylactic acid) and non-biobased (PBAT - polybutylene adipate terephthalate) and a legacy contaminant (PCN) that is widespread in in the Irish Sea. This approach is based on pilot studies at QML showing shanny is easy to manipulate, and amenable to exposure experiments with various plastics, both ambient and in the diet.

The PhD candidate will assess the impacts of BMNP exposure via dietary intake on fish physiology, organismal stress, endocrine disruption, behavioural alterations, 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 BMNP 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 bioplastics exposure will be possible, and this will guide the development of risk assessment frameworks using the Adverse Outcome Pathway framework.

The project's 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 BMNP 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. 

Candidate Background: The successful candidate would be expected to have basic laboratory and field work skills in the area of fish biology/ecology/behaviour/genetics. Experience with fish models e.g. shanny or zebrafish and training in bioinformatics would be beneficial but not essential.

More project details are available here:

How to apply: 

Funding Notes

QUADRAT studentships are open to UK and overseas candidates. Funding covers:
• A monthly stipend for accommodation and living costs, based on UKRI rates (currently £17,668 pa for 2022/23, updated annually)
• Fees (home rate tuition fees and/or fee waiver for overseas fees, where applicable)
• Research and training costs
For further information before applying please check full funding and eligibility information:


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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