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The microbial ‘plastisphere’ – Characterisation of plastic-associated microbial communities in natural and engineered environments

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  • Full or part time
    Dr Gavin Lear
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round

Project Description

We are currently seeking a PhD student with interests in microbiology, molecular biology and the environment to conduct research into the microbial degradation of waste plastics.

Project Background. The ecological impacts of the eight million tonnes of plastic entering our oceans each year is easy to witness, littering coastlines and clogging the guts of marine animals with plastic detritus. As the world is slowly waking up to the crisis of ocean plastic, novel solutions are needed to both stem the flow of plastic into our environment and to remove vast historic deposits of accumulated waste. The objective of this PhD positions is to isolate and characterise microorganisms and their respective genes from the New Zealand environment and explore their potential for the degradation of common environmental plastics.

Our project aims are to:

1. Use advanced DNA sequencing methods to identify the microorganisms colonising the surfaces of plastic substances present in the worlds oceans, and other environments.
2. Characterise the metabolic potential of microbial communities inhabiting the surfaces of environmental plastic, for the identification of novel plastic degrading genes and enzymes.

Identification of novel organisms, genes and enzymes capable of degrading plastics in the environment will provide new tools to aid the degradation of plastic in the environment and within waste treatment streams.

Our Ideal Candidate. The successful candidate will have a passion for undertaking molecular and microbial analyses to advance environmental monitoring, protection and recovery and will be comfortable conducting research in the field both and laboratory environments. Experience in bioinformatics analysis of DNA data is desirable, but not essential. The successful candidate will be motivated and organised, with a demonstrated capacity to master the broad sets of skills necessary for successful completion of a dynamic research project.

Your Host Organisation. Both positions will be based in the School of Biological Sciences, located in the heart of Auckland City, consistently rated as being among the top ten cities in the world to live. The successful candidates will become part of our thriving research community of over 200 staff and postgraduate students within the department. The candidate will be supervised by Dr. Gavin Lear (University of Auckland) and co-supervised by Dr. Joanne Kingsbury (ESR, Ltd., Christchurch, NZ).

This project forms part of a multi-million dollar collaborative project, led by ESR Ltd., in partnership with the University of Auckland, University of Canterbury, the Cawthron Institute and Scion, working with a range of primary sector industry bodies, regional councils and terrestrial authorities, NGOs, iwi and communities.

Funding Notes

Eligibility. Open to all nationalities. However, overseas candidates for whom English is not a first language must satisfy the English Language Requirements of the University to be eligible for study. Other international eligibility criteria and details regarding entrance to the program can be found on the Auckland University web site.

Scholarship funding. Our PhD studentships will cover $7,000 towards your university fees and an annual tax-exempt stipend of $27,000 [Please note that the candidate will, however, have to pay a compulsory student services fee (approx. $850 per annum)]. Additional income may be available from tutorial and laboratory supervision roles.


Please provide a cover letter, CV and recent academic transcript with your application.

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