FSE 3: How can microplastics in agricultural soil be a threat to food security?

Applications have now closed for our 2021/2 Vice Chancellor's PhD Scholarships. We will contact applicants in due course.

Faculty: Science and Engineering

Supervisors: Dr Thomas Ings, Dr Dannielle Green and Dr Bas Boots

Interview date: 19 May 2021

Soils are fundamental for supporting life, forming the base of terrestrial food-webs closely linked to food production. Productive agro-ecosystems rely on healthy soils that host diverse plant, animal and microbial communities ensuring sustainable and reliable food production. Soils are globally recognised as an invaluable non-renewable resource.

However, soil health is under threat by pollution from microplastics (plastic pieces <5mm), the most abundant form of solid waste on Earth. Microplastics in oceans have received a lot of attention, but concentrations are greater on land, entering soil via agricultural activities and atmospheric fallout.

Evidence is mounting that microplastics have adverse effects on soil animals and plants, with effects depending on polymer type, shape, and size. We recently showed that different microplastics altered growth of grass and impacted earthworm health, but underpinning mechanisms still remain poorly understood. Therefore, to safeguard the future security of food production, we need to advance from descriptive microplastic impacts to a mechanistic understanding of chemical and physical pathways.

The focus of this PhD is to progress our understanding of the different chemical and physical pathways by which microplastics affect soil biota and crop production. To achieve this, the student will employ a multi-disciplinary approach which will entail designing and maintaining field and laboratory experiments using a range of analytical techniques in soil ecology, biogeochemistry and microbiology. Therefore, we are seeking a candidate with experience in agro-ecosystems and/or ecotoxicology and a strong basis in experimental design and statistical analysis. Due to the practical field-based nature of the project, a full UK driving licence would be beneficial.

The successful candidate will benefit from joining the vibrant Applied Ecology Research Group and will also work closely with the Global Sustainability Institute and with external collaborators.

The supervisory team is highly experienced in designing field- and lab-based experiments, has published extensively using the proposed approaches and includes world-leading experts in the field of ecology and plastic pollution, producing internationally impactful research.

Funding notes

This successful applicant for this project will receive a Vice Chancellor’s PhD Scholarship which covers Home tuition fees and provides a UKRI equivalent minimum annual stipend for three years. For 2021/2 this will be £15,609 per year. The award is subject to the successful candidate meeting the scholarship terms and conditions. Please note that the University asserts the right to claim any intellectual property generated by research it funds.

Download the full terms and conditions.