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EASTBIO: Soil carbon for soil performance

College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine

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Dr Jonathan Hillier , Prof P Smith No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

With increasing public and private commitment to net zero emissions there is increasing interest in the role of agriculture to contribute to these goals through carbon sequestration. This presents a challenge for agriculture given the need to deliver on carbon mitigation while feeding a growing global population, but at the same time an opportunity since there is significant potential for carbon sequestration in soils and biomass to improve the soil function, and thus the productivity and resilience of farming.

The benefits of SOC on soil physical functions, such as water holding capacity, are widely recognised, while many recent studies have explored the potential benefits of soil carbon on crop productivity. Soussana et al (2017) estimated the potential impact of a 0.4% increase in SOC using 32 studies in developing countries, while Oldfield et al (2019) showed that together SOC and nitrogen dose were important determinants of crop yield.

This project will explore the impact of different types of soil organic matter on soil performance and function. We will develop existing carbon turnover models to differentiate between different types of organic matter in a more refined way than existing SOM turnover models and explore how the different types of SOM affect not only soil carbon turnover in the shorter and longer terms but also how they affect other soil health characteristics supporting increased yields and resilience (for example shorter term mineralisation and longer term structural benefits).

The main activities in this PhD will be:

1. Review existing indicators of soil performance and studies exploring the role of soil organic matter
2. Develop existing soil carbon turnover models to account for a wider range of types of soil organic matter
3. Conduct field studies with the industry partner (Syngenta) to calibrate and validate the above models.
4. Explore the impact of tillage and other soil carbon management practices on SOM composition and consequently, soil performance.
5. Development of practical metrics and a decision support tool for use at scale by non-experts to predict soil “performance” as a function of SOM additions and management.

The student will receive training in statistical meta-analysis, mixed-effects modelling, and process-based soil carbon modelling, and support the development of a Soil Health module suitable for inclusion in the for the Cool Farm Tool(

Funding information and application procedures:
This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) .

EASTBIO Application and Reference Forms can be downloaded via

Please send your completed EASTBIO Application Form along with a copy of your academic transcripts to [Email Address Removed]

You should also ensure that two references have been send to [Email Address Removed] by the deadline using the EASTBIO Reference Form.

Funding Notes

This opportunity is open to UK and international students and provides funding covering stipend and UK level tuition fees. The University of Edinburgh covers the difference between home and international fees meaning that the EASTBIO DTP offers fully-funded studentships to all appointees. There is a cap on the number of international students the DTP recruits. It is important that we know from the outset which fees status category applicants fall under when applying to our university.

Please refer to UKRI ( ing-people-and-skills/find-studentships-and-doctoral-training/get-a-studentship-to-fund-your-doctorate/) and Annex B of the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions for full eligibility criteria (


Oldfield E. et al (2019). Global meta-analysis of the relationship between soil organic matter and crop yields. SOIL, 5, 15–32,

Soussana, J.-F. et al. 2018. Matching policy and science: rationale for the ‘4 per 1000 soils for food security and climate initiative. Soil & Tillage Research (online). doi: 10.1016/j.still.2017.12.002.

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