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Understanding the role of phytochelatins in detoxifying toxic metal pollutants in invertebrate species

Project Description

Research background and aims: Potentially toxic elements (PTEs, previously known as heavy metals) are some of the most important pollutants in UK freshwaters. They can have toxic and ecosystem effects on aquatic life. It is critical to understand how organisms deal with metals by detoxifying them, both to understand mechanisms of resistance, and to understand when a population may be under ecological stress even before toxic effects are seen. The classic example of a detoxification system is metallothioneins – small proteins that bind metal ions. However, recently, evidence has started to emerge that metallothioneins are not the only (or even the most important) detoxification pathway in some animals. Instead, phytochelatins – metal-binding metabolites – may be potentially even more important. We have recently shown that the aquatic snail Lymnaea stagnalis produces phytochelatins in response to the toxic metal cadmium (Gonçalves et al. 2016, Sci Tot Environ 568:1054-1058). The project will follow this up by answering key questions about the role of phytochelatins in metal detoxification In this PhD we propose to find out if (and how) phytochelatins and metallothioneins interact to detoxify metal ions in different, non-model, environmentally relevant invertebrate species that differ in their sensitivity to metal exposure: an annelid (insensitive), an arthropod (intermediate) and a snail (sensitive). By studying the role of these two different detoxification mechanisms in species with different sensitivities, our project will provide essential information on the role of these important protective mechanisms as determinants of species specific metal toxicity.

This project offers the chance to work on an exciting new area (animal phytochelatins) at an early stage. It will provide broad-based training in life-science techniques, as well as more cutting-edge methods (e.g. using imaging mass spectrometry to track isotope labeled metals in animal tissues, target gene measurement and next-generation sequencing to measure gene expression profiles. It would suit a student with a passion for understanding responses to chemical pollution at the molecular, mechanistic level, and applying this to an important environmental problem. In addition, collaboration with the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology will provide an exciting opportunity to work with truly environmentally relevant and yet controlled systems – in particular, mesocosm systems for carrying out in situ exposures and for conducting field work at sites in the field.

Applicants for a studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a 2.1 degree or higher. If you have a 2.2 degree, but have also obtained a masters qualification, you are also eligible. Relevant post-graduate experience may also be sufficient, please contact the supervisors for more information.

To apply please send your CV and a covering letter stating your suitability for the project to the lead project supervisor Dr David Spurgeon ().

Funding Notes

This project is one of a number of proposed topics that are in competition for funding from the NERC SSCP Doctoral Training Partnership View Website.

Full studentships (fees and stipend) are only available to UK nationals and other EU nationals that have resided in the UK for three years prior to commencing the studentship. If you are a citizen of an EU member state you will eligible for a fees-only award, and must be able to show at interview that you can support yourself for the duration of the studentship at the UKRI level.


Liebeke, M., Garcia-Perez, I., Anderson, C.J. Lawlor, A.J., Bennett, M.H., Morris, C.A., Kille, P., Spurgeon, D.J., Bundy, J.G. (2013). Earthworms produce phytochelatins in response to arsenic. PLOS One 8, e81271.

Liebeke, M.; Strittmatter, N.; Fearn, S.; Morgan, A.J.; Kille, P.; Fuchser, J.; Wallis, D., Palchykov, V.; Robertson, J.; Lahive, E., Spurgeon, D.; McPhail, D.; Takáts, Z.; Bundy, J.G. (2015). Unique metabolites protect earthworms against plant polyphenols. Nature Communications 6, 7869.

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