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Funded PhD Opportunity

Superbugs in the water - Sources of multiple antibiotic resistance in aquatic environments

Subjects: Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology and Engineering


Superbugs as bacteria with resistance against multiple antibiotics have become a frequent phenomenon in health care, often endangering successful outcomes of once routine medical interventions. For decades Enterococci were considered harmless intestinal bacteria.  However, multi-drug resistant enterococcal infections are now a leading cause of medical device-associated infections, e.g. for urinary drainage catheters. While processes of resistance proliferation in care settings are well documented, investigation of potential sources in other technical and natural environments has only just begun (Berendonk et al., 2015). Interactions between these bacteria, aquatic organisms and abiotic particles can promote resistance transfer between bacteria and other forms of resistance acquisition. Within and post water treatment such processes can result in the emergence of new pathogens.

This research will involve interdisciplinary collaboration with our group of researchers from environmental sciences, biomedical sciences and engineering. We have characterised resistance transfer in environmental Enterococcus isolates (Conwell et al., 2017) and have established that zooplankton filter feeders can facilitate resistance transfer by conjugation (Olanrewaju et al. 2019). The PhD research will extend the group’s work on facilitation of resistance transfer through aquatic filter feeders and will explore subsequent effects on the benthic environment. It will study bacterial interactions with solid matrices and monitor the impact of biofilm disruption on transfer and acquisition of antibiotic resistance.

This PhD project will suit students from a quantitative science background, including microbiology, chemistry and environmental sciences. Experience with aquatic environments is an advantage. Students should be able to demonstrate aptitude for designing laboratory and field experiments with microbes and other aquatic organisms and share our enthusiasm to address real-world problems of great environmental and health significance.


Berendonk, T.U., C.M. Manaia, C. Merlin, D. Fatta-Kassinos, E. Cytryn, F. Walsh, H. Bürgmann, H. Sørum, M. Norström, M-N Pons, N. Kreuzinger, P. Huovinen, S. Stefani, T. Schwartz, V. Kisand, F. Baquero & J.L. Martinez 2015. Tackling antibiotic resistance: the environmental framework. Nature Reviews Microbiology 13: 310-317

Conwell, M., V. Daniels, P.J. Naughton, & J.S.G. Dooley 2017. Interspecies transfer of vancomycin, erythromycin and tetracycline resistance among Enterococcus species recovered from agrarian sources. BMC Microbiology 17: 19

Olanrewaju, T.O., M. MacCarron, M., J.S.G. Dooley & J. Arnscheidt (2019) Transfer of antibiotic resistance genes between Enterococcus faecalis strains in filter feeding zooplankton Daphnia magna and Daphnia pulex. Science of the Total Environment 659: 1168-1175

Essential criteria

  • Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC)
  • A comprehensive and articulate personal statement

Desirable Criteria

If the University receives a large number of applicants for the project, the following desirable criteria may be applied to shortlist applicants for interview.

  • First Class Honours (1st) Degree
  • Masters at 65%
  • Research project completion within taught Masters degree or MRES
  • Experience using research methods or other approaches relevant to the subject domain
  • Work experience relevant to the proposed project
  • Experience of presentation of research findings


    The University offers the following awards to support PhD study and applications are invited from UK, EU and overseas for the following levels of support:

    Department for the Economy (DFE)

    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £ 15,009 per annum for three years. EU applicants will only be eligible for the fee’s component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided). For Non-EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK. This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training studentship grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

    Due consideration should be given to financing your studies; for further information on cost of living etc. please refer to:

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University


Completing the MRes provided me with a lot of different skills, particularly in research methods and lab skills.

Michelle Clements Clements - MRes - Life and Health Sciences

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I would highly recommend Ulster University as you get so much support.  Coleraine is a beautiful town and the people are so friendly. It was a really positive experience.

Carin Cornwall - PhD Environmental Sciences

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Key dates

Submission deadline
Monday 18 February 2019

Interview Date
w/c 18 March 2019


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Coleraine campus

Coleraine campus
Our coastal and riverside campus focussing on science and health

Contact supervisor

Dr Joerg Arnscheidt

Other supervisors

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