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Applications are now open for PhD studentships starting in October 2018. 

Please read the recruitment introduction for more information about eligibility, how to apply, and possibilities for further funding.

The deadline for applications is 8 January 2018.

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COLE_UPML18EE - Does microplastic pollution pose a risk to marine life and food security?

Project description

Figures. (A) Microplastic fibres and fragments are prolific contaminants. (B) Bivalve larvae readily ingest fluorescently-labelled microplastics. (C) Microplastics identified in fish larvae sampled from the western English Channel. Images: Matthew Cole, Maddie Steer.

Selected other project supervisors
Dr Trevor Tolhurst (UEA)
Dr Pennie Lindeque (PML)
Professor Richard Thompson (Plymouth University)

Background & Objective
Microplastics contamination is widespread in the water-column and sediments of marine and freshwater ecosystems across the globe. Plastic can be consumed by a wide range of organisms, including zooplankton, fish, seabirds and megafauna. Highly productive coastal waters, in which fishing and aquaculture is prevalent, are particularly susceptible to microplastic contamination owing to their proximity to sources of anthropogenic pollution. It is therefore of little surprise that microplastic particles and fibres have been identified in animals destined for human consumption (e.g. shellfish, fish). In recent years there has been growing evidence that microplastic particles and fibres can cause adverse health effects in biota and microplastic is an emerging issue of concern for human health and food security.

You will test the hypothesis that microplastics pose a risk to marine life and food security.

Key research questions include:

  • What is the current and predicted likelihood of animals consuming plastic in coastal areas?
  • At what concentrations do microplastics pose a risk to the health of marine animals?
  • How are microplastics handled by bivalves?
  • Are fisheries and aquaculture at risk of high microplastic exposure?


Research methodology and training
The student will be based at Plymouth Marine Laboratory with access to modern laboratories, the new ultraclean microplastics research facility and the Research Vessel Plymouth Quest. The student will design and conduct a comprehensive field sampling campaign; and employ laboratory-based exposure studies to determine how microplastics are handled by bivalves, and how they can affect animals relevant to aquaculture by monitoring biomarkers of health. The student will receive training in a broad range of analytical techniques (isolation of plastics, characteristation, FT-IR analysis, electron microscopy), health biomarkers (ingestion rates, apical endpoints, sub-lethal endpoints), fieldwork, experimental design, scientific writing and statistics.

Person specification
Good honours degree in biological, environmental, marine science or biochemistry.

The successful candidate will be registered for a PhD in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia.

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the EnvEast NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, comprising the Universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent, with over twenty other research partners. Undertaking a PhD with the EnvEast DTP will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.

Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed by EnvEast on 12/13 February 2018.

Selected candidates who meet RCUK’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - in 2017/18, the stipend is £14,553. Ordinarily, EnvEast studentships are for 3.5 years, although longer awards may be made to applicants from quantitative disciplines who have limited experience in the environmental sciences, to allow them to take appropriate advanced-level courses in the subject area.

In most cases, UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a stipend. For non-UK EU-resident applicants NERC funding can be used to cover tuition fees, RTSG and training costs, but not any part of the stipend. Individual institutes may, however, elect to provide a stipend from their own resources.

This PhD studentship is expected to begin in September/October 2018. Both full-time and part-time study are possible (those planning to study part-time may wish to discuss this with the supervisor before applying).


  1. Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Fileman, E., Halsband, C. & Galloway, T.S. (2015). Impact of polystyrene microplastics on feeding, function and fecundity in the marine copepod Calanus helgolandicus. Environmental Science & Technology. 49: 1130–1137.
  2. Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Fileman, E., Halsband, C., Goodhead, R., Moger, J., & Galloway, T.S. (2013). Ingestion of microplastics by zooplankton. Environmental Science & Technology. 47: 6646–6655.
  3. Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Halsband, C. & Galloway, T.S. (2011). Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: A review. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 62: 2588–2597.
  4. Steer, M., Cole, M., Thompson, R.C., & Lindeque, P.K. (2017). Microplastic ingestion in fish larvae in the western English Channel. Environmental Pollution. 226, 250-259.
  5. Clark, J., Cole, M., Lindeque, P.K., Fileman, E., Blackford, J., Lewis, C., Lenton, T., & Galloway, T.S. (2016). Marine microplastic debris: a targeted plan for understanding and quantifying interactions with marine life. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 14: 317–324.