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The combined environmental health impact of microplastics, toxic algae & human pathogens

Project Description

We are seeking a highly motivated individual to carry out PhD research in the fields of environmental pollution and water quality, microplastics and freshwater ecology. This prestigious IAPETUS studentship, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), will provide a platform to build an interdisciplinary research career in the field of integrated environmental health and ecology.
The successful candidate will be based at the University of Stirling, supervised by Professor Richard Quilliam and Dr Ellie Mackay (at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology), together with academic support from Dr Peter Hunter & Dr David Oliver. The student will also become fully embedded within the £1.85M NERC funded “Plastic Vectors Project” led by Prof Richard Quilliam at the University of Stirling.

There is growing concern about the proliferation of microplastics in the aquatic environment and their impact on ecosystem functioning. At the same time the frequency of occurrence and size of harmful algal blooms is increasing globally in these ecosystems, yet we know very little about how the two interact. Microplastics in aquatic habitats become rapidly colonised by microbial biofilms, and this interface between plastic surfaces and the environment has been termed the ‘Plastisphere’. However, our understanding of microbial colonisation dynamics of marine and freshwater microplastics is limited to descriptive taxonomic studies, which have highlighted the huge diversity of bacteria (including human pathogens) that colonise the surface of plastic debris. An important area of microplastic research, that has been largely ignored, is the interactions of microplastics with algae. The enrichment of surface waters with nutrients can cause the proliferation of algal blooms, including species of toxin-producing algae and cyanobacteria, which are harmful to human health. Algal blooms are also hypothesised to provide a habitat that can protect waterborne human pathogens such as cholera. Subsequently, there is an urgent need to understand the dynamics of the relationship between algal blooms and microplastics and quantify their potential for enhancing the survival and transport of human pathogens such as cholera.

By understanding how microplastics can facilitate a multi-pollutant effect, this project will contribute to more accurate risk assessments, by integrating the effects of microplastics with harmful plastic-associated microbes. Therefore, the novelty of this project lies in exploring the processes and interactions occurring within the Plastisphere, but also by quantifying the combined risks to water quality from the synergistic effects of these three important groups of pollutants. Results from this research will provide both novel and timely data, with direct implications for stakeholders such as Defra, SEPA, EA and the NHS, and could have direct impact on policy (EU Bathing Waters Directive; EU Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive; Shellfish Protected Areas).

Key research questions:
Specifically, the large gaps in our understanding of microplastic-algal-human pathogen dynamics will be directly addressed through this studentship by focusing on the following questions:
1. Do distinct spatial and temporal patterns of microplastic-algal-pathogen associations exist in relation to seasonal environmental drivers of nutrient inputs into aquatic systems?
2. Does the presence of microplastic in eutrophic waters result in enhanced persistence of human pathogens in algal blooms through habitat, e.g. via colonisation of microplastics, and nutrient provision, e.g. from algal exudates?
3. How does microplastic pollution, together with potential shifts in the spatial and temporal variation of N and P under a changing climate impact the dynamics of algal occurrence and pathogen persistence?
4. To what extent are human pathogens associated with microplastics in algal blooms protected from environmental stressors?

Funding Notes

The project is competition funded through an IAPETUS2 PhD Studentship Award that includes 3.5 years student stipend (at national UKRI standard rate), fees and research training support grant. Note that eligibility rules apply. Applicants must be British Citizens, although exceptions may apply for other EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for the last three years. Please check the IAPETUS2 website if you have concerns about your eligibility. View Website
The formal start date for the successful applicant is October 1st 2020


This project is part of the IAPETUS2 Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) and PhD students will receive substantial additional interdisciplinary training through this partnership.

Further information on the project, skills and training opportunities can be found here:

Candidates should ideally have a First Class Honours degree and Masters degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2:1 Honours degree may be considered provided they have a Distinction at Masters level. The formal deadline for applications is 12 noon on Friday January 10th 2020. However, serious applicants are strongly advised to get in touch well in advance of this to discuss their application: please email a CV and covering letter with the contact details (including email addresses) of two referees to Prof Richard Quilliam ([email protected]). Your covering letter should clearly set out your suitability and motivation for this PhD with reference to your past experience and achievements. Appropriate applicants will be invited by Prof. Quilliam to make a full application to both to the IAPETUS2 website and to the University of Stirling.

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