Effects of dispersants on mitigating environmental impacts of marine oil pollution: insights from microbiological, chemical and field investigations

Collaborative award with Oil Spill Response Ltd (MCKEW_E20ARIES)

Effects of dispersants on mitigating environmental impacts of marine oil pollution: insights from microbiological, chemical and field investigations

Collaborative award with Oil Spill Response Ltd (MCKEW_E20ARIES)

Project Description


Dr Boyd McKew, School of Life Sciences, University of Essex

Prof Terry McGenity, School of Life Sciences, University of Essex

Dr Rob Holland, Oil Spill Response Ltd (OSRL)

Scientific background

Oil spills are one of the most challenging threats to the marine environment that can have long-term impacts on fisheries, the economy and society. Dispersants are commonly applied as a remediation strategy to disperse oil into the water column and produce small oil droplets that are more readily degraded by indigenous oil-degrading bacteria. Whilst dispersants are one of the many tools to prevent coastal contamination, there are concerns they may contribute to the formation of marine oil snow (MOS).  MOS has been speculated to transport oil into the deep sea, potentially damaging benthic ecosystems. This PhD will investigate whether dispersants inhibit or enhance the formation of MOS over a range of relevant conditions,

Research methodology

The student will use state-of-the-art microbiological, chemical, and molecular techniques to quantify the effects of dispersants on MOS formation over a range of environmental conditions. The student will learn Next Generation Sequencing and quantitative-PCR to identify and quantify oil-degrading microbes associated with MOS, and Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry to measure hydrocarbon degradation. There will also be an exciting opportunity to participate in novel multidisciplinary controlled oil-spill experiments at sea with OSRL (www.oilspillresponse.com).


Training will include marine fieldwork, experimental design, molecular microbiology (e.g. Next Generation Sequencing, bioinformatics) and environmental chemistry. The student will be part of the vibrant Ecology and Environmental Microbiology Group  at the UoE, as well as benefiting from expertise at OSRL and further engagement with industry partners, such as IPIECA, Shell and ExxonMobil, enhancing key skills and employability.  Additionally, as part of the ARIES cohort, the student will have access to a range of training courses, such as “advanced genomics”.

Person specification

This is an exciting opportunity for a highly motivated individual with a background in Microbiology, Marine or Ecological Sciences, who is keen to learn new skills to address a global environmental issue and engage with the oil industry’s scientific expertise. The successful applicant will undertake studies as part of a multi-disciplinary team (Boyd McKew, Terry McGenity and Rob Holland). The PhD will be based at the UoE, with time spent at OSRL, Southampton.


  • 1. BH Gregson, G Metodieva , MV Metodiev, BA McKew (2019) Differential protein expression during growth on linear versus branched alkanes in the obligate marine hydrocarbon-degrading bacterium Alcanivorax borkumensis SK2T. Environmental Microbiology 21, 2347-2359.
  • 2. TJ McGenity, BD Folwell, BA McKew, GO Sanni (2012) Marine crude-oil biodegradation: a central role for interspecies interactions. Aquatic Biosystems 8, 1.
  • 3. BA McKew, F Coulon, MM Yakimov, R Denaro, M Genovese, CJ Smith, AM Osborn, KN Timmis, TJ McGenity (2007) Efficacy of intervention strategies for bioremediation of crude oil in marine systems and effects on indigenous hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria. Environmental Microbiology 9, 1562-1571.
  • 4. U Passow, J Sweet, A Quigg (2017) How the dispersant Corexit impacts the formation of sinking marine oil snow. Marine Pollution Bulletin 125:139-145.
  • 5. Kleindienst et al (2015) Chemical dispersants can suppress the activity of natural oil-degrading microorganisms. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 112:14900-14905

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, and will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award.
  • Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses in the subject area (see https://www.aries-dtp.ac.uk/supervisors/additional-funding/).
  • This studentship will start on 1st October 2020, and the closing date for applications is 23:59 on 15th January 2020.
  • Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 18/19 February 2020.
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor.
  • Please note that the joint NERC-ESRC ARIES-SeNSS studentship projects have different deadlines and funding arrangements. For full details please visit https://senss-dtp.ac.uk/aries-senss-joint-studentship, or contact SeNSS.dtp@uea.ac.uk.

Studentship Open for Applications

Please apply by sending a CV (including contact details of two academic referees) and a cover letter explaining your motivation and suitability for the PhD.

They should be sent to Emma Revill  ariesapp@essex.ac.uk  by 15th Jan 2020