Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Doctoral Training Programme

Plants on the Pill: Presence and impact of pharmaceutical pollutants and enzymes in wastewater when used for irrigation of crops


Lab rotation project description

Water is the commodity in agriculture and food security. The quality of the water used in agriculture and food production/processing informs on the quality of the products obtained. This project will focus on the increasing use of treated wastewater as a source for irrigating crops. The wastewater treatment process was never designed to remove pollutants (e.g. pharmaceuticals, steroid hormones and metals) and so treated wastewater will contain these chemicals. The question is what impact does these pollutants have on crop growth and development?This rotation will introduce students to the analytical approaches that underpin the linked PhD project:
• determining the pharmaceutical load in a wastewater and the distribution of these contaminants in plant tissues and soil
• standard parameters for determining water/soil quality including pH, biochemical oxygen demand, dissolved oxygen
The students will also have the opportunity to be trained in identifying the enzymes present in the wastewater and plant tissues. Enzymes are inherent to wastewater and plants. Which enzymes and how much is present will inform on the biotransformation potential to remediate these contaminants, as well as inform on how the plant functions. Does the use of wastewater for irrigation influence the enzymatic portfolio of the plant and how that plant is able to function?  

Fact file

Research theme



University Park


LR2, LR3


2nd supervisor

BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Linked PhD Project Outline

This project focuses on water in agriculture and food security. Water is integral - from provision of suitable quality water for crop production which in turn produces wastewater, to treatment of wastewater produced from animal husbandry.
Global water stress and climate change is driving tighter water cycles and reuse including directly administering treated effluent, risking pollutants such as pharmaceuticals, steroid hormones and metals transferred to crops via root uptake (Wu et al., 2014). Our aim is to develop new analytics and an understanding of how tighter water cycles and resulting water quality, impacts on plant growth and development. The full project could be any combination of expertise from the three partners combining crop species Maize (Rasmussen, SB) and Strawberry (Else, NIAB-EMR) to study the impact of pharmaceuticals in wastewater, crops and soil (Gomes, UP) on the whole plant physiology. Plant material collected from each experiment will also be analysed for pharmaceutical levels in different tissues. Combining plant physiology, phenotyping, mathematical modelling, and novel algorithm development with high-level chemical analytics, the student will determine which and how wastewater components (e.g. pharmaceutical drugs, hormones, metals) affect plant growth and development at different scales, from cell to ecosystem.  There are many groups looking at water availability and the effect of drought or floods on crop growth, but water quality is a significant factor in improving water efficiency and crop quality. Maintaining food security and crop resilience will require increasing use of wastewater for irrigation. However the wastewater pollutant load has yet to be evaluated for impact on plant growth, which may also affect pollutant loads in food but may also have positive effects on plant physiology as some compounds affect calcium channels, central to nutrient transporter activity, some compounds affect steroid compounds (potentially including key plant hormones), and others are antibiotics which may alter the soil microbial environment and/or act as selection drivers for antimicrobial resistance. Plant physiological response also has the potential for use as a biological ‘indicator’ - a readily available analytical tool for soil pollutant loads, compared to off-line and expensive chemical analysis. If we are to become a water efficient planet understanding the effects of these pollutants on plant growth is necessary for crop, food security and human health. Opportunities will also available for collaborating with a Mexican University studying the influence of pollutant loading in wastewater and use of wastewater irrigation on crop uptake, growth and development.
Wastewater irrigation to crops is a new area for the PI which builds on a Unuiversity funded pump prime project, Plants on the Pill (Gomes and Rasmussen, 2016), Water Company funded feasibility study of contaminants in wastewater and reuse (Gomes, 2016) and Mexican Government funded collaboration with UNAM (Gomes, 2016-2020).
[1] QU J, YING H, WANG X, YU G, SCHMIDY T, DREWES JE, ELSNER M, ESCHER B, GROSS M, HOLBERT H, WACHTER W, TAO H, HENMI M, IKE M, KOMAI T, SHIBATA Y, TANAKA H, CARTMELL E, GOMES RL, HUDDERSMAN K, KASPRZYK-HORDERN B, TEMPLETON M, PLATZ MS, CHILDRESS AE, LOGAN B, MAYER BK and SCHNOOR JL, 2016. Challenges and solutions in a changing world, A White Paper from the 6th Chemical Sciences and Society Symposium (CS3), GDCh, Germany. Pg 32.
[2] JONES, O.A.H. and GOMES, R.L., 2014. Chemical pollution of the aquatic environment by priority pollutants and its control. In: HARRISON, R.M., ed., Pollution: Causes, Effects and Control 5th Edition. Royal Society of Chemistry. 1-28                                                                              
[3] GOMES, R.L., SCRIMSHAW, M.D., CARTMELL, E. and LESTER, J.N., 2011. The fate of steroid estrogens: partitioning during wastewater treatment and onto river sediments Environmental Monitoring and Assessment. 175(1-4), 431–441

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Doctoral Training Programme

The University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

Tel: +44 (0) 115 8466946