Microplastic distribution, fate and effects in UK waterways

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Ocean and Earth Science


Microplastics (MP) are a major non-degradable particulate contaminant in aquatic ecosystems across the globe. Emerging evidence for harm to biota and humans makes MP environmental pollution an issue of concern for society and requires the development of appropriate environmental policies and legislation. It is probable that terrestrial MP, transported via rivers and estuaries, is the dominant component of the total MP supply to the marine environment. However, direct and rigorous estimates of MP in rivers and their fluxes into the ocean are poorly constrained. This hinders assessment of the ecological and biogeochemical risks associated with MP exposure. It also prevents the development of legislation to restrict the environmental accumulation of MP. We seek a highly motivated student to i) investigate MP loads in UK waterways, ii) examine the factors governing MPs distribution at the national level, iii) conduct ecotoxicological experiments investigating the effects of MPs exposure on aquatic fauna, and, iv) develop a predictive model on MP pollution in the aquatic domain and how this will change in the future. This project will help the development of mitigation measures and policies on MP use and disposal at both national and international levels.
This project will build on sampling opportunities of the NERC-funded Land-Ocean Carbon Transfer (LOCATE) programme and will involve intensive, seasonal field work on the rivers Halladale (Scotland), Tamar (England) and Conwy (Wales) and their associated estuaries. Additional experimentation and sample collection may take place on a research cruise around the UK landmass in 2018. The field sampling will target areas where contrasting MP loads and fluxes are expected. State-of-the-art vibrational spectroscopy and imaging techniques will be used to detect, characterise and quantify MPs in the aquatic samples and provide insight on sources and origin of MPs in the UK waterways. The student will develop and conduct controlled ecotoxicological experiments using molecular techniques to examine how different concentrations of dominant microplastic types influence the health of microbial and zooplankton communities. Modelling will involve implementation of the existing and newly acquired observational and experimental MP data to parametrize the distribution, fate and effects of MPs along the land-ocean continuum.


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