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Cleaning up marine oil spills: are dispersants a help or hindrance? (MCKEW_E17EE) - CASE project with Cefas

Project description

Scientific background and significance

Crude oil spills are one of the most significant threats to the marine environment and also have large impacts on the economy and society.

Dispersants are commonly applied as a remediation strategy to produce small oil droplets that are more readily degraded by indigenous bacteria. However, little is known about how the many different types of dispersants affect the biodegradation rates of various types of crude oils and the oil-degrading microbes responsible for its clean-up. While dispersants can be very effective in crude-oil remediation, there are concerns about their ecological and toxicological impacts.

This PhD will investigate the effects of a range of dispersants on rates of biodegradation of different crude oils, the succession and structure of microbial communities, and the broader ecology of the marine environment.

Research methodology & training

The student will be trained in experimental design, statistical analysis and state-of-the-art microbiological, chemical, ecotoxicological and molecular techniques to quantify the effects of dispersants on the degradation of oil and microbial community structure. Specific training will include: marine/coastal fieldwork, innovative cultivation of marine bacteria, DNA extraction, PCR, Next Generation Sequencing, bioinformatics, GC-MS hydrocarbon analysis and ecotoxicology assays.

The student will be part of a vibrant Environmental Microbiology research group at the University of Essex, with numerous post-docs and PhD students, including 6 PhD students working on different aspects of hydrocarbon degradation. The student will also benefit from expertise in ecotoxicology and oil-spill monitoring, response and policy at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), Lowestoft.  Additionally, by being part of the EnvEast cohort, the student will have access to a range of training courses such as “innovative research” and “advanced genomics”.

Person specification

This is an exciting opportunity for a highly motivated student with a background in Microbiology, Marine or Ecological Sciences or Biotechnology, who is keen to learn and apply new skills to address a global environmental problem.

The successful applicant will undertake marine sampling and lab-based studies as part of a world-leading multi-disciplinary team. The PhD will be based primarily at the University of Essex, and also at Cefas.


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.

For further information, please visit


  1. (i)    BA McKew, F Coulon, AM Osborn, KN Timmis, TJ McGenity (2007) Determining the identity and roles of oil‐metabolizing marine bacteria from the Thames estuary, UK. Environmental Microbiology 9 (1), 165-176
  2. (ii)    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 (6), 1562-1571
  3. (iii)    Coulon F, Chronopoulou PM, Fahy A, Païssé S, Goñi-Urriza M, Peperzak L, Alvarez LA, McKew BA, Brussaard CPD, Underwood GJC, Timmis KN, Duran R, McGenity TJ (2012) Central role of dynamic tidal biofilms dominated by aerobic hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria and diatoms in the biodegradation of hydrocarbons in coastal mudflats. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 78:3638–3648.
  4. (iv)    TJ McGenity, BD Folwell, BA McKew, GO Sanni (2012) Marine crude-oil biodegradation: a central role for interspecies interactions. Aquatic Biosystems 8 (1), 1.
  5. (v)    R. Law, M. Kirby, J. Lee, D. Morris, J. Rees and J.Brant (2014) Guidelines for the environmental monitoring and impact assessment associated with subsea oil releases and dispersant use in UK waters. Cefas Science Technical Series 153. 58 pp

Dr Terry McGenity (University of Essex)

Jan Brant (Cefas)

  • Start date 1 October 2017
  • Programme PhD
  • Mode of Study full time
  • Studentship Length 3.5 years
Entry requirements
  • Acceptable First Degree Microbiology, Marine or Ecological Sciences or Biotechnology
  • Minimum Entry Standard 2:1 Honours degree