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Minister visits Stirling to hear about innovative research

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Pictured from L-R: Dr Richard Quilliam, Professor Malcolm MacLeod, Mairi Gougeon MSP, Dr John Rogers, and Professor Andrew Tyler.

A Scottish Government minister has visited the University of Stirling to hear how its experts are leading a £1.85 million study investigating how marine plastics transport bacteria and viruses.

Mairi Gougeon MSP, Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, met with Dr Richard Quilliam, who leads the innovative project which seeks to understand how plastics act as vehicles for pathogens – and the impact that may have on human health.

Ms Gougeon also had the opportunity to speak with Professor Malcolm MacLeod, Senior Deputy Principal; Dr John Rogers, Executive Director of Research and Innovation Services, who provided an update on the Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Region Deal; and Professor Andrew Tyler, Associate Dean for Research for the Faculty of Natural Sciences, who provided an overview of the University’s excellence in the field of environmental research.

Speaking following her visit to the University, the Minister said: “We are all now well aware that plastic pollution threatens our marine environment, caused by our dependence on plastic and throwaway culture.

“Little is known of the long-term harm caused by marine plastics, whether to marine species or humans. As such, research like this by the University of Stirling is key to improving our understanding, and enabling the protection of our seas on which we rely for climate regulation, food and so much more.”

Dr Quilliam’s study – entitled Microbial hitch-hikers of marine plastics: the survival, persistence and ecology of microbial communities in the ‘Plastisphere’ – is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. It will consider how pathogens bind to plastics in the ocean; how that process helps bacteria and viruses spread across the world; and the potential impact to human health.

The research will also consider whether the process boosts survivability of viruses, bacteria and toxic algae; analyse the behaviour of microplastics, that have become colonised by microbes, through rivers and estuaries; and consider the role of microbes in the biodegradation of plastics.

Collaborative research

With the work expected to result in new environmental guidelines, strategies and management plans designed to reduce the likelihood of marine plastics being bound by pathogens, the work is an example of how collaborative research can inform effective environmental policy and regulation.

Collaboration between research and policymakers is set to be boosted further with a research and policy hub established as part of the £90.2 million City Region Deal, funded by the UK and Scottish Governments. The University will receive £17 million for a new aquaculture facility, with a further £22 million to be invested in the University-led International Environment Centre.

The Centre, involving a number of partners including Forth Valley College, will draw together academic expertise from across Scotland, the UK and the world. It will connect environmental research with business opportunities and training and will take full advantage of the natural environment and heritage of the region.

Dr Rogers said: “We were pleased to welcome the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment to Stirling, and to have the opportunity to showcase our innovative and interdisciplinary research that is having a positive impact on communities within Scotland and worldwide.”

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