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New cohort of PhD students to improve the management of freshwater resources

12 November 2019


Freshwater ecosystems are becoming more and more vulnerable to climate change and the extinction rates of freshwater species is now faster than any other.

This October, the FRESH Centre for Doctoral Training welcomed a further 12 students and is currently recruiting its 3rd cohort of PhD students. Please see the full list of projects on the FRESH CDT website and apply before Monday 16 December.

FRESH Centre for Doctoral Training funds students to research real-world problems affecting freshwater resources identified by stakeholders from sectors ranging from environmental charities to the water industry. FRESH students work with over 16 organisations and industries nationally and internationally, helping to provide solutions and ‘fresh’ perspectives to global water challenges within the four themes in bold below. Check out the topics on which our current students are working.

Developing and testing the next generation of tools and technologies for freshwater ecosystems and ecosystems services

Waterborne diseases caused by pathogenic micro-organisms are most commonly transmitted in contaminated freshwater. This is a problem in many developing countries due to poor sanitation, inefficient water and wastewater infrastructure or lack of suitable monitoring systems. Josh Rainbow’s project (Cohort 1) aims to develop portable devices that will test the water on-site for a variety of pathogens such as E coli, Salmonella, and Pseudomonas to improve public health. The current global increase in antibiotic resistance could also mean that exposure to contaminated waters leads to infections that are very hard or impossible to treat. Through his PhD, Luke Lear (Cohort 1) combines a novel bioassay with state-of-the art genomics methods to characterise the ecological drivers of antibiotic resistant pathogens in freshwater environments.

Another key issue within the UK Water Industry, which has led to a UK-wide increase in customer complaints, is that of an earthy and musty taste and odour in drinking water supply. Annalise Hooper's project (Cohort 1) aims to deliver a mechanistic model of the triggers for geosmin production - a metabolite produced in drinking water supply reservoirs that causes taste and odour issues - that will drive the management of lakes and reservoirs.

The presence of organic micropollutants in river waters, including pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), are harmful for aquatic life. Thomas Homan (Cohort 2) works on addressing the presence of micropollutants and chemicals and their effects on the ecological water quality in river waters.

As a Biochemical Engineer, it is a breath of fresh air to learn from different stakeholders and it reaffirms that this is absolutely the right field of work for me to build a career on.

Thomas Homan, Cohort 2

The detection of species using environmental DNA (eDNA) is proving invaluable in conservation biology for the detection of rare and invasive taxa. Jack Greenhalgh (Cohort 1) is working with eDNA to develop further markers to detect invasive crayfish taxa in the UK. He is identifying areas threatened by the invasive species to address conservation challenges for protecting ‘endangered’ species.

The majority of freshwater habitats are small, comprising of ponds and low-order streams, ditches and springs. These habitats do not exist in isolation and are interconnected both hydrologically and ecologically. This connectivity is a critical component in maintaining freshwater biodiversity. Claire Robertson (Cohort 2) is using eDNA to characterise biodiversity in pond ecosystems, examining interactions and the stability of networks within and across ponds.

Understanding ecological resilience and sustainability requires monitoring the population structure and dynamics of organisms, and their interactions within defined ecosystems, or habitats. Kosta Manser (Cohort 2) is investigating how weak electric fields in fresh water microhabitats can enable the monitoring of fauna and flora in a detailed yet long-term, non-contact and non-invasive fashion.

Claire on the first Cohort 2 training session in October 2019.

Tackling extinction and impairment in freshwater ecosystems

Full understanding of the impacts of beavers on aquatic ecology across lowland river systems in England has not been demonstrated, yet such ecosystems support critical populations of endangered species such as Atlantic Salmon and Sea Trout. As part of his project, Kye Davies (Cohort 2) aims to examine and quantify the range of aquatic ecological impacts of beaver reintroduction.

African freshwater ecosystems are being increasingly impacted by changes in land use, dam building, pollution, overfishing and invasive species. However, there is still very little understanding of the nature of these impacts on indigenous biodiversity, including species with key ecological roles such as aquatic macroinvertebrates. Harry Layfield (Cohort 2) is exploring the diversity of macroinvertebrates while addressing important issues in conservation and evolutionary ecology.

The brown and sea trout fishery is extremely valuable socio-economically, bringing £21 million annually to the Welsh economy and more than £12 million into southwest England. The question of how fish colonise, survive and adapt to man-made environmental pollution is therefore of great relevance to the local economy and biodiversity of these river systems. Daniel Osmond (Cohort 2) is exploring how genomic changes have enabled brown trout populations to adapt to changing environmental conditions, including post-industrial metal pollution.

Microbial communities are the foundation of freshwater food webs and their biodiversity and productivity provide services that are of incalculable value to human societies – from clean water to climate regulation and fisheries production. Yet, the impacts of environmental change and biodiversity loss on freshwater microbial communities are poorly understood and understudied. Through her project, Hebe Carmichael (Cohort 2) is quantifying the impacts of synergies between biodiversity loss and multiple abiotic stressors on the functioning of freshwater microbial communities.

Quantifying and managing emerging risks to freshwaters

Pollution, rising temperatures, floods and drought all affect rivers biodiversity. As part of her PhD, Fiona Joyce (Cohort 1) is studying the impact of broadleaved trees located in riparian zones - the interface between land and river - on river resilience. More specifically, Fiona’s research aims to determine whether the changes in river communities associated with broadleaved trees make them more resilient to floods and droughts. Recent work has indeed shown the potential of broadleaved trees to reduce the temperature extremes associated with rising temperatures. Emma Phoroah (Cohort 2) is also looking at sustainable river management, but with a special focus on rural rivers. Through fieldwork and the analysis of big data sets, Emma aims to understand why and how rural rivers and declining, to better inform policy and practice.

Antimicrobial resistance is one of the greatest threats facing ecosystem health and society, human and animal health at large. Yet, relatively little is known about the distribution and prevalence of AMR in UK freshwaters. To address this gap, Clare Brown (Cohort 1) is monitoring anti-microbial resistance in UK freshwater environments using microbiological and genomic approaches. Throughout her PhD, April Hayes (Cohort 2) aims to determine the impact of micropollutants on the evolution of antimicrobial resistance and on the ecology of microbial communities in freshwater ecosystems.

Increasing export of nitrogen to waters worldwide contributes to nutrient pollution of freshwater ecosystems with adverse consequences for ecosystem health.Through fieldwork lab-based bioassays, Elliot Druce (Cohort 1) is studying how sources of inorganic nitrogen, such as organic waste and artificial nitrogen fertilisers, affect phytoplankton communities.

Invasions by non-native species have devastating effects on native fauna and freshwater habitats. Toby Champneys's project (Cohort 1) focuses on the Nile tilapia or the ‘aquatic chicken’ that has been spread widely across tropical freshwaters due to its importance in aquaculture. It is considered invasive in every region where it has been introduced. Through data collection in Tanzania, Toby is observing and quantifying behavioural interactions between this invasive fish and native fish under natural conditions.

FRESH has provided me with a far broader understanding of my project and where it fits than I would have been able to reach as a 'standalone' PhD student.

Toby Champneys, Cohort 1

Costanza Zanghi (Cohort 2) is investigating how changes to water temperature and turbidity are impacting predator-prey interactions in freshwater systems, and how changes in the relative abundances of predator and prey-species can be explained by altered behavioural dynamics.

India and its neighbouring countries face a high degree of uncertainty regarding the quantity and quality of future water supply from Himalayan glacial meltwaters. While these meltwaters account for up to 70% of total discharge from some rivers, their quantity and composition is sensitive to climate change and can have a significant impact upon river chemistry. Rory Burford (Cohort 1) aims to understand how climate change will affect microbial productivity in glaciated regions.

Cohort 1 at the Llyn Brianne Observatory with Prof Isabelle Durance, FRESH CDT Director.

Creating integrated solutions to manage ecosystems service sustainability

Franek Bydalek (Cohort 1) is using a newly built wetland to quantify waterborne pathogens and pathogen indicators to investigate changes in the microbial community during operation of the wetland. His project will provide insights on the ability of constructed wetlands to remove emerging substances such as pharmaceuticals, pathogens and antimicrobial resistance genes. Working with Wessex Water and the British Geological Survey, Victoria Hussey (Cohort 1) is complementing Franek’s project by producing data that will inform future wetland design, highlighting issues surrounding wetland management and disposal of green waste. More specifically, she aims to understand how biogeochemical processes control the bioavailability of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in constructed wetlands.

Working with different universities and stakeholders really helps to highlight the importance of our individual research projects within the wider context of freshwater sustainability and conservation, and provides a great support network.

Victoria Hussey, Cohort 1

Working with Wessex Water and Astra Zeneca, Anania Lippi (Cohort 2) is investigating how antibiotics present in water environments currently affect the development of antimicrobial resistance and contribute to water pollution. Her PhD will provide crucial information to both the water and pharmaceutical sectors.

Nutrient enrichment of surface freshwaters, including increasing algal production, is significant stressor affecting freshwater ecosystems and the services they provide. However, there is currently a need to understand better the range of nutrient forms generating these stresses within catchments. Through his PhD project and his work with Bristol Water, Chris Webb (Cohort 2) aims to determine what drives the ecosystem responses to nutrient enrichment, and develop evidence to influence policy development.

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UKRI NERC-funded Centre for Doctoral Training in Freshwater Biosciences and Sustainability.