Marine Risk Assessment of High Technology Metals in the Context of Climate Change (MARTECH)

Apply now. ARIES PhD project opportunities October 2020

Scientific background:

Around the world, investment is growing in the electrical economy for communication, transport and renewable energy systems. From smart phones to electric cars, a new generation of High Technology Metals (e.g. gallium, gadolinium & lanthanum) are required, with consequent risks of electronic waste or mine drainage causing coastal pollution. In contrast to copper and other metals widely used historically, there is a lack of knowledge regarding the health impacts of HT metals in marine organisms. Our cause for concern reflects recent evidence for the harmful effects of these metals in freshwater organisms. It is also known that hypoxia and other environmental factors associated with climate change increase the bioavailability and toxicity of metals to marine invertebrates. This exciting project will address urgent knowledge gaps on the interactions between HT metals, hypoxia and other environmental factors and their combined impacts on marine invertebrates. 

Research methodology:

Laboratory and field experiments will measure bioaccumulation of HT metals in marine crustaceans and molluscs, together with laboratory exposures to metals and hypoxia. Amphipods and molluscs will be of primary interest as their different respiratory physiology may lead to important differences in biological responses of HT metals under the influence of hypoxia. Additional experimental work with our neighbouring industry partner will focus on mysids since they represent key species in marine food webs and are widely used for marine risk assessment. Biological response measurements will include molecular, physiological and reproductive health parameters, optimised for each organism. These data will be integrated with population modelling using the globally important OECD Adverse Outcome Pathway framework for decision making and environmental protection. 


The student will join a vibrant research team of international recognized scientists at the forefront of marine conservation. Training will be provided in the marine invertebrate biology, analytical chemistry, molecular biology, physiological techniques, population modelling and quantitative risk assessment. 

Person specification:

Applicants should have a minimum 2.1 BSc degree in marine biology or an equivalent academic qualification including some experience of marine science. The successful applicant will have excellent skills in data analysis and science communication, together with an aptitude for practical work.

Additional background:

High Technology (HT) Metals are emerging contaminants of concern in aquatic ecosystems. Recent reports show an 11.5-fold increase in Ga exposures in Germany from 2009-2012, with a similar upward trend in the USA for 2004-2013. Over the same period, eutrophication and climate change are leading to hypoxia and rising temperatures as combined threats to coastal ecosystems. Enhanced metal toxicity under hypoxia occurs in a range of species, linked to increased ventilation rates under hypoxia and gill damage, leading to impaired O2 exchange and oxidative stress. Truebano and colleagues have recently shown even moderate levels of hypoxia disrupt physiology, with significant differences between life-stages. The derivation of meaningful Environmental Quality Standards (EQS) for HT metals requires predictive knowledge to address interactions between hypoxia and other key factors. The protection of marine biodiversity needs to use validated predictive tools for a range of climate change scenarios. A novel approach for calculating reliable EQS values for emerging contaminants is the OECD Adverse Outcome Pathways model, integrating molecular, physiological and population data. Adopting the OECD approach to HT metals, population level effects will be predicted using standard density independent population models, and elasticity/sensitivity analysis incorporating density dependence and environmental stochasticity (methods developed by Grant and colleagues). 

Aims and objectives:

Our aim is to understand the role of hypoxia on the uptake and toxicity of Ga, Gd and La in marine invertebrates for predictive decision making. Our specific objectives are to address: (1) what are the major exposure pathways of HT metals for marine invertebrates under normoxic or hypoxic conditions?; (2) which marine invertebrate taxa are most likely to bioaccumulate HT metals under real world conditions?; (3) how can we use the OECD Adverse Outcome Pathway model to predict impacts of HT metals in marine invertebrates in the context of eutrophication and climate change? 

Training excellence and professional development: 

The student will benefit from training in experimental design (e.g. a series of 28d laboratory experiments with Gammarus spp. or Mytilus spp., examining individual metals & hypoxia at 20%, 40% and 100% ASV; 15oC versus 20oC), molecular techniques (incl. qPCR & Western blotting for antioxidant genes & heat shock proteins), physiological markers, histopathology, life-cycle measures of fitness (incl. brood size, gonad histology, developmental time & metabolic performance) and analytical chemistry (ICP-MS). The excellence and relevance of this proposal is directly linked to the NERC Strategy, UK Government ‘Futures of the Sea’ 25 Year Programme (advised by Hutchinson & Mieszkowska and colleagues) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

Strengths of research supervisors and risk mitigation:

The supervisory team have the necessary skills for this research (incl. chemistry, ecotoxicology, molecular biology & physiology), with >200 peer reviewed articles and have collectively supervised >30 successful PhDs. The student will be encouraged to join our UK and international scientific networks (e.g. Challenger Society, OECD & SETAC) and advisory roles to Defra and other agencies. The team skills and excellent facilities across the four academic and industry project partners will ensure proactive risk management throughout the project.


Hutchinson et al., (2013) Evaluating legacy contaminants and emerging chemicals inmarine environments using adverse outcome pathways and biological effectsdirected analysis. Mar. Poll. Bull. 74: 517-525. 

Mieszkowska et al., (2019) Multinational, integrated approaches to forecasting andmanaging the impacts of climate change on intertidal species. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser.613: 247-252. 

Pinto et al., (2019) Ecotoxicological effects of lanthanum in Mytilus galloprovincialis:biochemical and histopathological impacts. Aquat. Toxicol. 211: 181-192. 

Rogowska et al., (2018) Gadolinium as a new emerging contaminant of aquaticenvironments. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 37: 1523-1534. 

Truebano et al., (2018) Short-term acclimation in adults does not predict offspringacclimation potential to hypoxia. Scientific Reports 8: 3174.