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Plastics and plankton: How big a problem? (LINDEQUE_EPML17EE) - CASE project with DEFRA

Project description


Microscopic plastic beads, fragments and fibres, collectively termed microplastics (<5 mm) are widespread and abundant pollutants within our oceans, highlighted as contaminants of global environmental and economic concern by governments and international agencies across the world. These microscopic plastic fragments have been identified in the water column and sediments of marine and freshwater ecosystems across the globe. 

Owing to their small size and abundance, microplastics are readily consumed by marine organisms. In recent laboratory studies on small marine animals at the base of the pelagic food web (zooplankton) we have shown that microplastic ingestion leads to reduced growth, survival and reproduction. Our most recent field studies confirm that zooplankton collected from local sites in the Western English Channel contain microplastics.


The aim of this PhD is to investigate the ingestion of microplastics by marine biota, including the wider implications for the marine ecosystem and human wellbeing.


This PhD will investigate the spatial and temporal overlap between microplastics and pelagic organisms in the marine environment and therefore the probability of encounter. Factors affecting the bioavailability of microplastics to pelagic marine organisms will be determined as will the potential of an organism to ingest microplastics. This is of particular importance for determining the wider impacts of microplastics on the marine food web and potential levels of contamination in organisms intended for human consumption.

Using laboratory facilities and field based sampling you will address the following questions:

  •    Are interactions between microplastics and marine life more likely in coastal areas?
  •    Does the type, size or colour of microplastics affect bioavailability?
  •    Are aged microplastics more readily ingested than new plastics?
  •    Does the developmental stage of an organism affect its potential for microplastic ingestion?
  •    What are the broader implications of microplastics for the marine ecosystem and human wellbeing.


This project has been shortlisted for funding by the EnvEast NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, comprising the Universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent, with twenty other research partners. 

Shortlisted applicants will be invited to an interview day on the 14/15 February 2017.

Successful candidates who meet RCUK’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship. In most cases, UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award. In 2016/17 the stipend was £14,296.

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(i) Cole M, Lindeque PK, Fileman E, Clark J, Lewis C, Halsband C, Galloway TS (2016) Microplastics Alter the Properties and Sinking Rates of Zooplankton Faecal Pellets. Environmental Science and Technology 50: 3239-3246 doi 10.1021/acs.est.5b05905

(ii) Cole M, Lindeque PK, Fileman E, Halsband C, Goodhead R, Moger J, Galloway TS (2013) Microplastic ingestion by zooplankton. Environmental Science and Technology 47: 6646-6655 doi 10.1021/es400663f

(iii) Law, K. L. & Thompson, R. C. 2014 Microplastics in the seas. Science 345, 144-145.

(iv) Bakir, A., Rowland, S. J. & Thompson, R. C. 2014 Enhanced desorption of persistent organic pollutants from microplastics under simulated physiological conditions. Environmental Pollution 185, 16-23.

(v) Papathanasopoulou E., Queirós  A.M., Beaumont N., Hooper T. and Nunes J.(2014) What are the local impacts of energy systems on marine biodiversity ecosystem functioning and associated ecosystem services: A systematic review protocol. Environmental Evidence, 2014, 3:26


Dr.Nicola Beaumont (PML)

Prof Richard Thompson (Plymouth University

Dr Michael Steinke (University of Essex)

Dr Tarquin Dorrington (DEFRA)

  • Start date 1 October 2017
  • Programme PhD
  • Mode of Study full time
  • Studentship Length 3.5 years
Entry requirements
  • Minimum Entry Standard 2:1 Honours degree