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EASTBIO: Impact of biological nitrification inhibition on enhanced and sustainable crop production

  • Full or part time
    Dr C Gubry-Rangin
    Prof M Jaspars
  • Application Deadline
    Sunday, January 05, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description


Dr Cecile Gubry-Rangin (University of Aberdeen)

Professor Marcel Jaspars (University of Aberdeen)

One of the current greatest societal challenge is to deliver more productive and sustainable agriculture to feed the World’s growing population. Such challenge requires maximising the efficiency and sustainability of agricultural practices and resources. In this project, the student will work with groups specialised in soil microbial ecology, in natural product chemistry and plant genetics to tackle this challenge.

Nitrification is a crucial step of the nitrogen cycle as it oxidises ammonia into nitrate1. This has important economic and environmental consequences, with important loss of nitrogen fertiliser, nitrate leaching into groundwater soil and nitrous oxide production2. Synthetic nitrification inhibitors are available to farmers, but their application incur additional financial costs, which farmers with less resources afford with difficulty. Another approach to solve this nitrogen use efficiency dilemma is to use the natural nitrification inhibition compounds produced by plants, such as Brachiolactone3. This biological nitrification inhibition (BNI) process has large consequences for delivering a more productive and sustainable agriculture.

Such BNI approach has particular interest for tropical countries with large amount of degraded land requiring application of nitrogen fertilisers to agri-ecosystems, such as Indonesia. In addition to massive soil degradation due to deforestation and land-use changes, these agricultural soils are also subject to impact of climate change with large flooding events, increasing the demand for improved sustainable agricultural productivity. This project will therefore focus on understanding the BNI mechanisms in a variety of cultivated plants across Indonesia and it will benefit from an established collaborative network between UK and Indonesian researchers.
This project will focus on analysis of microbial activity and diversity upon growth of a range of crops, used for human food, animal fodder and biofuel production, including Sorghum and corn, which are important crops worldwide. Their genetic diversity will include well-studied varieties in research centres and other varieties used by local farmers across the Indonesia. Therefore, providing a sustainable alternative to their agricultural production would have important local economic and environmental advantages, with opportunities for worldwide implementation. In addition to plant varieties, the nature and amount of nitrogen fertilisers applied to agricultural soils are also likely to influence the BNI efficiency. Therefore, such effect will be analysed through a series of field-based and greenhouse experiments. Finally, since the first discovery of BNI molecule3, there has been limited chemical characterisation of these factors. This project therefore aims to fill this gap of knowledge by extracting and spectroscopically characterising these molecules.

Therefore, the key aims of this project are:
1) Determine the efficiency of BNI across a large variety of cultivated plants
2) Evaluate the effect of nitrogen fertilisation on the BNI efficiency
3) Identify the BNI using mass spectrometry molecular networking
4) Isolate the molecules responsible for the BNI

This PhD studentship will provide training in microbial activity and diversity characterisation (via ecosystem function and high-throughput sequencing), field and greenhouse plant growth, spectroscopic chemical characterisation and statistical analysis. The student will join dynamic research groups with international reputations and will gain experience of work in the tropics.

Application Procedure:

Please send your completed EASTBIO application form, along with academic transcripts and CV to Alison McLeod at . Two references should be provided by the deadline using the EASTBIO reference form. Please advise your referees to return the reference form to .

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership. This opportunity is only open to UK nationals (or EU students who have been resident in the UK for 3+ years immediately prior to the programme start date) due to restrictions imposed by the funding body. Queries on eligibility? Email Alison McLeod ().

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a First Class Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2:1 Honours degree may be considered provided they have a Distinction at Masters level.


1- Gubry-Rangin C, Hai B, Quince C, Engel M, Thomson BC, James P, Schloter S, Griffiths RI, Prosser JI, Nicol GW. 2011. Niche specialization of terrestrial archaeal ammonia oxidizers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (52), 21206-21211

2- Hink L, Gubry-Rangin C, Nicol GW, Prosser JI. 2018. The consequences of niche and physiological differentiation of archaeal and bacterial ammonia oxidisers for nitrous oxide emissions. The ISME journal 12 (4), 1084

3- Subbarao GV, Nakahara K, Hurtado MP, Ono H, Moreta DE, Salcedo AF, Yoshihashi AT, Ishikawa T, Ishitani M, Ohnishi-Kameyama M, Yoshida M, Rondon M, Rao IM, Lascano CE, Berry WL, Ito O. 2009. Evidence for biological nitrification inhibition in Brachiaria pastures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(41):17302-17307.

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