Chemical analysis and bioaccumulation of ‘forever chemicals’ in aquatic organisms

Chemical analysis and bioaccumulation of ‘forever chemicals’ in aquatic organisms

Eligibility: UK/EU/International students with the required entry requirements

Duration: Full-Time – between three and three and a half years fixed term

Application deadline: This opportunity will only be available until a suitable candidate is identified – early application is therefore recommended.

Interview dates: Will be confirmed to shortlisted candidates

Start date: May or September 2021 depending on availability of successful candidate

For queries please contact Dr Ivan Kourtchev.


Introduction

Perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that are manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the world (e.g. textiles, household products, food processing, construction, electronics).

People can be exposed to PFAS in different ways, including food (e.g. fish, fruit, eggs, and egg products) and drinking water, which can lead to significant health effects (Sunderland et al., 2019). Because of their extreme persistence in the environment, PFAS are often referred to as the ‘forever chemicals’. Due to toxicological effects of PFAS, their production is restricted in the Western countries, but they still can be imported in consumer goods such as carpets, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber and plastics.

Among a range of PFAS, perfluoro-2-propoxypropanoic acid (also known as GenX), which is mainly produced to make nonstick coating surfaces for cookware, was introduced commercially as a replacement for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Since it was introduced only recently, the effects of GenX in biological systems (incl. humans) remain widely unknown. GenX was proposed as a safe substitute for PFOA, mainly due to its significantly lower biopersistence as compared to PFOA. GenX chemicals have been found in surface water, groundwater, finished drinking water, rainwater, and air emissions in some areas.

One of the major challenges with the control and understanding the impact of GenX and its by-products is absence of analytical techniques allowing their identification at trace level concentrations, especially in complex biological matrices. Another major challenge is understanding of PFAS, especially GenX effect on marine environment and more specifically on aquatic organisms.

Project details

Aim of the Project
The aims of this work are (i) to develop a platform for the analysis of PFAS (incl. GenX) at environmentally realistic concentrations (i.e. trace levels) in water and complex biological matrices and (ii) to investigate bioaccumulation, bioconcentration and toxicity of PFAS on marine bio-organisms.

Research Questions

  • What are the best instrument’s parameters (e.g. chromatographic conditions, MS parameters, ionisation sources) for identification of PFAS at trace levels in environmental and biological samples?
  • What are the best extractions techniques (e.g. Solid Phase Extraction, Accelerated Solvent Extraction, Liquid-Liquid Extraction) for the analysis of PFAS?
  • How pollutants (PFAS) enter a food chain and relate to the accumulation of contaminants, in biological tissues by aquatic organisms (i.e. marine amphipods), from sources such as water and food?
  • How PFAS (incl. GenX and its degradation products) accumulate in a biological organism (i.e. marine amphipods) over time and their toxicological effects at environmentally realistic ambient concentrations?

Research Objectives

  • Develop analytical methodologies and screening platforms based on the cutting-edge High-Resolution Mass Spectrometry for identification of PFAS (incl. GenX);
  • Investigate how PFAS enter a food chain and relate to the accumulation of contaminants in biological tissues of aquatic organisms (i.e. marine amphipods), from sources such as water and food.
  • Investigate how PFAS (incl. GenX and its degradation products) can be accumulated in a biological organism over time.

Programme Methodology is summarised as followed:

  • Perform literature review on PFAS (e.g. available analytical techniques for their analysis, bioaccumulation in aquatic organisms);
  • Training on sampling, sample preparation, and HRMS and hyphenated analytical techniques;
  • Training on advanced data analysis tools (PCA, PMF, HCA);
  • Development of analytical methods and a platform for targeted and untargeted screening of PFAS;
  • Training on cultivation of test organisms and exposure to compounds of interests
  • Extraction and analysis of test organisms for PFAS using developed HRMS methods
  • Verification of the possible adverse effects and their relationship to the measured internal doses.
  • Disseminate obtained results through publishing project findings in journals and presenting at national/international conferences and scientific meetings.

Funding

You may be able to get a UK loan from Student Finance England or Student Finance Wales for a Post degree in any subject.

Benefits

Academic Environment

Coventry University has been the UK’s top modern university for seven consecutive years (Guardian University Guide 2013-2019) and holds a number of other prestigious accolades.

Established in 2014 through substantial university investment, the Centre for Agroecology, Water & Resilience (CAWR) is rapidly building a global reputation for transdisciplinary research into processes of resilience in social-ecological systems. Among its key lines of research is work focusing on modelling of water and food systems, aided by high performance computing facilities.

Training and Development

The successful candidate will acquire a wealth of new competences in environmental analytical chemistry research, including new analytical skills and instrumental methods.

The applicant will gain up-to-date knowledge on the research methods used to investigate emerging contaminants (including PFAS) in water and biota. In particular, the applicant will benefit from the unique opportunity of using the powerful instruments available for determining the molecular composition of environmental samples.

Training on cutting edge High Resolution Mass Spectrometry (HRMS) and hyphenated techniques will provide knowledge of off-line analytical methods. Furthermore, the training provided in the advanced data analysis tools (PCA, PMF, HCA) will furnish the applicant with new technological competencies that are increasingly being used in environmental chemistry research to interpret highly complex datasets, such as those generated in field measurements, including in organisms.

The applicant will also learn how to cultivate test organisms and expose them to compounds of interests, extract them from different organs e.g. hemolymph, gonads and verify the possible adverse effects and relate them to the measured internal doses. The new knowledge and training acquired by the applicant will significantly improve his/her scientific skills base and provide a strong platform for building an independent research career integrating methods from both chemistry and biology fields.

The successful candidate will receive comprehensive research training including technical, personal and professional skills.

All researchers at Coventry University (from PhD to Professor) are part of the Doctoral College and Centre for Research Capability and Development, which provides support with high-quality training and career development activities.

Entry requirements

  • A minimum of a 2:1 first degree in a relevant discipline/subject area with a minimum 60% mark in the Project element or equivalent with a minimum 60% overall module average.

PLUS

  • The potential to engage in innovative research and to complete the PhD within a three-year period of study
  • A minimum of English language proficiency (IELTS overall minimum score of 7.0 with a minimum of 6.5 in each component)

In addition

  • BSc/MSc in a science-based subject area (Chemistry, Biology, Forensic Science and/or Environmental science)
  • Strong interest in interdisciplinary research
  • Experience in laboratory and experimental work
  • Some knowledge of statistics and data analysis
  • Ability to work independently and in a team
  • Effective time management and organisation skills

How to apply

All applications require full supporting documentation, a covering letter, plus a 2000-word supporting statement showing how the applicant’s expertise and interests are relevant to the project. 

To find out more about the project please contact Dr Ivan Kourtchev.

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