Understanding the rules of life

Category: Standard Studentships

Micropollutant biodegradation by marine microbes — deciphering key players and developing bioindicator technologies

Project No. 2475


Primary Supervisor

Dr Kenneth Wasmund – University of Portsmouth


Dr Marc Dumont – University of Southampton

Prof John Williams – University of Portsmouth


Micropollutants are emerging environmental hazards that are released into environments at low but persistent levels.

Rational:  Micropollutants are emerging environmental hazards that are released into environments at low but persistent levels. They can be especially problematic to aquatic environments, where they can bioaccumulate and/or disrupt organismal and ecosystem functioning. In coastal areas, WWTPs discharge treated and sometimes untreated wastewater directly into the sea, releasing micropollutants into marine systems. Interestingly, some specialized bacteria in terrestrial systems are known to biodegrade micropollutants, thereby reducing negative impacts on the environment. Nevertheless, essentially nothing is known about the capacity or identity of marine microbes to degrade different micropollutants. This project therefore aims to break new ground in revealing the identities and capacities of marine microbes that biodegrade micropollutants, and to use these microbes and their functional genes as biomarkers for environmental monitoring of micropollutant biodegradation potential.

Approach: This project will investigate the identities and functions of micropollutant-degrading bacteria in two complementary approaches using advanced molecular biological methods: i) within in situ-like environmental conditions, i.e., using a combination of microcosm experiments, activity assays and DNA-based stable isotope probing approaches, and ii) in vitro, i.e., via microbial cultivation and subsequent physiological and genomic/proteomic studies. These will be later linked and combined with iii) meta-/genome mining and development of molecular biomarker assays (e.g., quantitative PCR assays for catabolic genes), which will enable biomonitoring of micropollutant degradation capabilities in marine environments.

Impact: This work will reveal the capacity of marine microbes to biodegrade key micropollutants, and provide essential microbial and genetic biomarkers that can be used in combination with chemical monitoring for a better understanding of the ability of marine systems to cope with micropollutants.

Candidates with interest and experience in microbiology and molecular biological methods would be well suited to apply. The project will provide training in both advanced molecular biological and bioinformatic methods.