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Postgraduate research project

Exploring the mechanisms of microplastics incorporation and their influence on the functioning of coral holobionts

Fully funded (UK and international)
Type of degree
Doctor of Philosophy
Entry requirements
2:1 honours degree View full entry requirements
Faculty graduate school
Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences
Closing date

About the project

Recent studies have determined that >4 million tons of plastic enter the oceans each year, which are progressively broken down by natural conditions generating fragments < 5mm in size that are known as microplastics. The effect that these particles are having on coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs is currently a subject of considerable debate.

Microplastics have been found in the mouth and among the mesenteries of coral polyps collected from reef regions as well as in plankton tows in reef waters, demonstrating that in coral reefs, microplastics are present in the food chain but also that corals might act as long-term sink of these particles through adhesion to their surface (Huang et al. 2020).

However, the effect of ingestion or incorporation of microplastics on the functioning of these habitat-founding organisms, is less clear. Experiments under controlled conditions have shown that after a short time of exposure to plastic particles, corals exhibit cleaning mechanisms (mucus production), ingestion and/or passive overgrowth (Reichert et al., 2021). This results in some cases in negative effects on health, such as increased bleaching and tissue necrosis. However, our own preliminary data shows that over long-term exposure to microplastics, coral functioning is not adversely affected, emphasizing the gap in our understanding of coral incorporation, accumulation and overall response to microplastics.

This project aims to use a combination of advanced laboratory study and novel analytical approaches to plug this knowledge gap to determine the impact of microplastic pollution on coral health and reveal the mechanisms of microplastic incorporation into the coral holobiont.


  • Professor Sumeet Mahajan (University of Southampton)
  • Professor Joerg Wiedenmann (University of Southampton)
  • Dr Cecilia D’Angelo (University of Southampton
  • Professor Gavin Foster (University of Southampton)