Overview

Project Highlights:

 

  • Contribute to the understanding of a contemporary environmental issue;
  • Multidisciplinary (chemistry/biology) laboratory based project using advanced analytical techniques;
  • Industrial placement with a UK Polymer company (Potential Case Studentship) and international travel opportunities.

 

Man-made plastics are now ubiquitous in the natural environment; with their presence used to stratigraphically mark the likely beginning of a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene. Estimates suggest that there are >5 trillion pieces of plastic (270,000 tonnes) in the world’s oceans, the majority of which have travelled through terrestrial environments to get there (80 %). Current scientific research into the impact of plastics is heavily skewed towards the marine environment, despite plastic being found in almost all ecosystems (Figure 1). This projects seeks to address this imbalance by investigating the impact of plastics in the terrestrial environment.

 

The terrestrial environment has a distinct lack of data regarding the accumulation and impact of plastics despite decades of unintentional plastic pollution, the use of plastic products directly within soils (e.g. mulch films) and the spreading of waste derived fertilisers containing plastic contaminants. Research activity in this area has largely focused on soil health and crop yield. There is however a knowledge gap regarding the vitality of animals at the base of the food web and the role they play in creating and spreading microplastics (small plastic particles measuring <5mm). Newer biodegradable alternatives, so-called bioplastics, have been proposed as one solution to plastic pollution, but is this proposal justified from an ecotoxicity viewpoint?

This project will likely follow this pathway:

  1. Understanding the absorption of chemicals on to plastic materials and transference to terrestrial organisms;
  2. Using environmental soil biosensors to investigate ecotoxicological differences between fossil fuel derived plastics and newer biodegradable alternatives, i.e. bioplastics;
  3. Understand the timescales and microbiology involved with plastic degradation in a variety of terrestrial environments (e.g. river sediments and terrestrial soils).
  4. Study as a model system in soil the interactions of several different types of microplastics with the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans.

 

Figure 1. Fluorescent polystyrene microspheres in the gut of the nematode worm C. elegans.

Methodology

This project will use advanced analytical chemistry and biological techniques tailored towards the research question(s). The Open University has well-resourced laboratories that can: simulate natural environments under laboratory conditions; chemically analyse pollutants within fauna, flora and materials; measure the biodegradability of plastic materials; analyse ecotoxicological effects in biologically-relevant model organisms; screen environmental and chemical samples in vitro.

It is envisaged that the student would use microscopy, gas chromatography mass spectrometry, fourier-transform infra-red spectroscopy, solid phase extraction, HPLC and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy for chemical identification. Bespoke respiration rigs with infra-red gas analysers would be used to investigate biodegradation. Genetic and behavioural studies would use soil biosensors.

Training and Skills

Specific to this project the student will gain training and experience in biodegradation of microplastics (CB), microscopy (RM) and chromatographic methods, including SPE and HPLC/UPLC (SC). Training in general C. elegans handling, toxicology and behavioural analysis in C. elegans (RM). The student will have the chance to visit external laboratories to apply the developed methodology.

Timeline

Year 1: Initial period (2-3 months) induction and literature reviewing. Once the background, context and focus is clear to the student, the rest of the first year will be dedicated to training on analytical techniques so that original data is generated by 9 months for inclusion in the probation report. This year will also include meetings with the industry partner.

Year 2: Laboratory intensive year generating and analysing original data. Opportunity to attend national academic and industrial conferences. Medium (1-2 months) and Long-term (6-12 months) biodegradation and ecotoxicity studies will be conducted. Industry placement at end of 2nd year/beginning of 3rd.

Year 3: Expectation that the final experiments/analysis be completed in the first few months of the year. The majority of the third year to be dedicated to writing. Expectation that the thesis be ideally submitted within 3.5 years (i.e. within the funded stipend period). Oportunity to attend an international conference.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The project is being developed with Biome Bioplastics Limited as a potential CASE partner.

Further Details

Students should have an enthusiasm for multi and interdisciplinary science and environmental research. The student will join a well-established environmental and analytical team researching plastic waste materials at the Open University.

Please contact Dr Carl Boardman (Carl.Boardman@open.ac.uk) for further information.

Applications must include: