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Unseen side-effects – can we control how plants respond to medicinal drugs?


Faculty of Biological Sciences

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Dr Laura Dixon , Dr Laura Carter , Prof Stefan Kepinski No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

Project summary

Medicinal and veterinary drugs have revolutionised mammalian health, however, they do carry side-effects. After use, these bioactive chemicals typically enter our waste stream where treatment technologies are not specifically designed to remove them so medicinal active ingredients are released into the environment via the recycling of wastewater, sludge’s and animal manures. One of the less considered consequences of these drugs is the impact they have on plant growth, in particular the growth of our crops. This is a concern when we consider the widespread use of organic forms of fertilizer (manures) in global agricultural operations. To date, we have observed that some of these drugs affect plant growth and we now want to identify if we can breed plants which take-up lower amounts of the drug or are more resilient to the effects of these drugs. This understanding will help us develop more sustainable farming practices through developing healthier crops and supporting the safe use of organic fertilizers.

Project description

How are medicinal and veterinary drugs affecting the growth of our crops and what action can we take to reduce the negative effects? Through answering these questions this project will assist in increasing the sustainability of modern agriculture.
It has been established that a large percentage of medicinal and veterinary drug pass through the subject unchanged and find their way into the soil and watercourses [1]. Certain drugs, including anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety medication are very stable and can persist in the environment for prolonged periods. Research has shown that these drugs can be taken up by plants and that they affect plant germination (wheat), photosynthetic potential and fertility (courgette) [2,3]. In this project, we would like to identify and understand how certain drugs are affecting the growth and development of our primary arable crop, Triticum aestivum (bread wheat). Bread wheat is grown in rotation programmes and often on land that has been fertilised with farm manures. This project will screen a selection of landrace and elite wheat cultivars [4] to identify the range of the responses and the most sensitive developmental phases to medicinal and veterinary drug exposure at environmentally relevant concentrations. With the identification of diverse responses, the effect will be genetically mapped using publically available mapping populations [5] and controlling genetic regions identified. These regions will be defined by genetic markers that can then be used in marker-assisted breeding. In addition, candidate-controlling gene(s) underlying these regions will be identified. Through the identification of candidate controlling genes we will start to get an insight in to the mechanism through which these drugs are affecting plant growth and development and so enable us to identify potential allelic variants that can be used to moderate the effects on plant growth.

Training

The student will work under the supervision of Dr Laura Dixon and Dr Laura Carter from the Centre for Plant Sciences and School of Geography, University of Leeds. The successful candidate will develop a range of research skills, including experimental design, field sampling, chemical analysis, statistical analysis and data interpretation, academic writing skills and wider management skills. The successful candidate will benefit from inter-disciplinary training in analytical techniques and chemical fate and effects, as well as experimental biology skills including genetic mapping, RNA-sequencing. In addition, training will be provided in field/laboratory health and safety procedures and the use of field and analytical equipment as well as training to identify the developmental phases of wheat growth.
Supervision will involve regular meetings between all supervisors. Students will present results and receive constructive wider feedback from peers in a Research Support Group and at the University postgraduate research days. The successful applicant will, under the guidance of the supervisory team, contribute to all aspects of the research including designing the experiments, laboratory analysis and data collection.

The student will be encouraged to write and submit papers for publication during the project and to attend national and international conferences to present results and gain feedback from the wider academic community. The candidate will have access to a range of training courses designed to facilitate skills development and support project dissemination activities.

Funding Notes

A strong undergraduate (and ideally masters) degree in genetics, biology, chemistry or plant science is expected. Experience working with data analysis/statistical techniques/fieldwork sampling are desirable but not essential, as full training will be provided in all techniques relevant for the project. However, a willingness to collect data outside is essential. If you are not sure if you have the relevant background please feel free to contact the supervisors to discuss the project.



References

1. Carter LJ, Chefetz B, Abdeen Z, Boxall AB. (2019). Emerging Investigator Series: Towards a framework for establishing the impacts of pharmaceuticals in wastewater irrigation systems on agro-ecosystems and human health. Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts., 21, pp 605-622
2. Carter LJ, Williams M, Bottcher C, Kookana R. (2015) Uptake of pharmaceuticals influences plant development and stress signalling networks. Environ. Sci. Technol., 49, pp 12509 – 12518.
3. Knight, ER, Carter LJ, McLaughlin M. (2018). Bioaccumulation, uptake and toxicity of carbamazepine in soil - plant systems Environ. Tox. and Chem., 37 (4), pp 112-1130.
4. Dixon, Karsai, Kiss, Adamski, Liu, Yang, Allard, Boden, Griffiths (2019) VERNALIZATION1 controls developmental responses of winter wheat under high ambient temperatures. Development 146, 3
5. https://www.seedstor.ac.uk/search-browsecollections.php
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