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Functional Significance of Al hyper-accumulation in Tropical Forest Trees

Project Description

Numerous plant species take up and store high concentrations of Al from the soil system, despite the toxicity of Al3+ to plant metabolism. One example is Tea (Camelia sinensis), which contains approximately 1% Al in mature leaves. The physiological mechanisms and ecological function of Al hyper-accumulation are unknown, but there has been recent evidence published that the trait may help to regulate soil pH in the rhizosphere to enhance uptake of essential plant nutrients, and speculation that high Al concentrations in plant tissues act as a chemical defence against herbivores or pathogens. We have developed the tropical shrub Melastoma malabathricum as a model species for conducting experimental work on Al accumulation based on growing plants in a hydroponic system which allows tight control of the nutrients supplied to the plants. The aim of this PhD studentship project would be to test competing hypotheses relating plant tissue Al concentration to regulation of soil pH vs deterrence and performance of herbivores or plant pathogens. The experimental work will be supplemented by fine-scale measurement of the distribution of Al in plant tissues using fine-scale microscopy and exploration of tropical forest floras to discover and map the biogeography and evolution of this key under-explored plant functional trait.

Application Process
Please apply for admission to the ’Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Science’ to ensure that your application is passed to the correct School for processing.

Please provide a copy of the degree certificate and transcript for each previous degree undertaken, a copy of your English language proficiency certificate (if relevant), and contact details of two referees who can comment on your previous academic performance (at least one should be from your current degree programme). Incomplete applications will not be considered.

Funding Notes

There is no funding attached to this project, it is for self-funded students only.

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered provided they have a Distinction at Masters level.


1. Metali, F., Salim, K.S. & Burslem, D.F.R.P. (2012) Evidence of foliar Al accumulation in local, regional and global datasets of wild plants. New Phytologist, 193, 637-649.

2. Metali, F., Abu Salim, K., Tennakoon, K. & Burslem, D.F.R.P. (2015) Controls on foliar nutrient and Al concentrations in a tropical tree flora: phylogeny, soil chemistry and interactions among elements. New Phytologist, 205, 280-292.

3. Russell, A. N., Hall, S.J., & Raich, J.W. (2017). Tropical tree species traits drive soil cation dynamics via effects on pH: a proposed conceptual framework. Ecological Monographs, 8, 685–701.

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