Fate, transformation and effect of microplastics on microbial communities in the environment

CASE award with Anglian Water Services Limited (WHITBY_E20ARIES)

Fate, transformation and effect of microplastics on microbial communities in the environment

CASE award with Anglian Water Services Limited (WHITBY_E20ARIES)

Project Description


Dr Corinne Whitby, School of Life Sciences, University of Essex

Dr Philippe Laissue, School of Life Sciences, University of Essex

Prof Richard Thompson, School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth

Dr Andrew Mayes, School of Chemistry, University of East Anglia


Scientific background:

Microplastics enter ecosystems, where they affect microorganisms and their processes. Microbial-driven ammonia-oxidation is fundamental to the environmental cycling of nitrogen (N) and ammonia-oxidisers are highly sensitive to environmental perturbations. Biosludges, are often applied to agricultural soils as fertilisers, but biosludges can accumulate microplastics during waste treatment processes, with potential effects on ammonia-oxidiser communities and activity. Currently, little is known about how microplastics affect ammonia-oxidation especially in environments where biosludges are applied or are inputted (e.g. agricultural land, run-off into freshwaters).


  1. Characterise the effect of microplastics on ammonia-oxidiser communities and nitrification processes.
  2. Characterise the fate and biotransformation of microplastics in the environment.

Research Methodology:

The student will conduct a combination of field sampling (river sediments, biosludges, agricultural soils) and mesocosm experiments encompassing various environmental perturbations (i.e. nutrient and microplastic inputs). Changes in ammonia-oxidiser abundance and diversity will be characterised using qPCR and sequencing of phylogenetic and functional genes and related to ammonia-oxidation rates. Fluorescence microscopy/ FISH will determine the spatial distribution of microorganisms in relation to microplastic particles (Essex). Size/physical appearance, spectroscopic signatures and polymer transformation will also be measured.


The candidate will join the Ecology and Environmental Microbiology Group (Essex) with further training at UEA, Plymouth and Anglian Water. The student will learn a suite of molecular, chemical and imaging techniques. Training will include fieldwork, qPCR, high throughput sequencing, bioinformatics and bioimaging (fluorescence microscopy) to characterise microbial communities in relation to microplastics. The student will be trained in FT-IR spectroscopy (UEA) for microplastic particle characterisation and polymer chemistry, spend time in the microplastic facility (Plymouth) and three months at Anglian Water to gain business experience and skills in resource management. The student will also develop other skills in experimental design, data analysis and interpretation, scientific writing, communication to specialist and non-specialist audiences and have access to training courses across institutes.

Person specification

A highly motivated individual with a background in Microbiology, Biochemistry, ENV or related discipline, who is keen to learn new skills and engage with industry. The candidate will have good communication skills and be self-motivated.


  • 1. Beddow et al 2016. Environ Microbiol 19:500-510.
  • 2. Hidalgo-Ruz et al 2012. Environ Sci Technol 46:3060–3075.
  • 3. Lansdown, et al 2016 Nature Geosci. 9:357-60.
  • 4. Li et al 2015. Appl Environ. Microbiol 81:159-165.
  • 5. Maes et al 2017 Scientific Reports 7:44501.
  • 6. Papaspyrou et al 2014. PLOS ONE 9:1-13.
  • 7. Smith 2016. Hydrocarbon and Lipid Microbiology Protocols.

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