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Mycorrhizal mediation of woodland expansion on former farmland

   Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

  , Prof M Tibbett  Friday, December 09, 2022  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

We seek a candidate for a PhD project aimed at providing practical solutions to address the global issue of climate change by maximising the success of tree planting as a mitigation strategy. Our focus is on belowground pathways supporting afforestation of former farmland. The candidate will examine how soil fungi can accompany tree selection to enhance establishment success and carbon sequestration.


The UK has committed to establishing 30,000 ha of new woodland annually by 2050, targeting low-quality former farmland. However, this setting can be a harsh environment for tree seedlings, with low-C soils, and there are major knowledge gaps about colonisation pathways for essential soil fungi that associate with target trees. These include ectomycorrhizal fungi, which confer resilience against drought and pathogens, and saprotrophs specialised in litter breakdown.

You will join a team of soil scientists, mycologists, and forest ecologists from the University of Reading (UoR; Pickles, Tibbett) and the Centre for Forest Management at Forest Research (FR; Barsoum), sharing expert knowledge and research excellence to an applied end. Our project partners include Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Natural England, the Woodland Trust, and Forestry Commission England.


Based at UoR you will work alongside mycorrhizal researchers in Pickles and Tibbett’s labs with the opportunity to work at FR as a second location (see You will interact with FR’s multi-disciplinary team (social scientists, geneticists, soil scientists) working on woodland creation and applied impact-driven research, plus FR’s postgraduate community. Additional benefits include development and networking opportunities with partners and enhanced understanding of the forestry sector and tree nursery trade.


You will use planted and naturally regenerated oak and birch to examine: i) fungal communities/growth/health of saplings, ii) spatial patterns of establishment success, fungal communities, and fungal dispersal moving away from woodland edges, and iii) costs/benefits of inoculating seedlings with woodland soils. Field sites around England include FR’s provenance/species diversification trials in Kent and the National Forest ( You will gain experience with plant-fungal traits, lab/glasshouse/field experiments, soil properties, decomposition, molecular techniques, and statistical analyses. The results of this project will assist in improving woodland creation on former arable fields.


School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading:

The University of Reading, located west of London, England, provides world-class research education programs. The University’s main Whiteknights Campus is set in 130 hectares of beautiful parkland, a 30-minute train ride to central London and 40 minutes from London Heathrow airport. 

Our School of Biological Sciences conducts high-impact research, tackling current global challenges faced by society and the planet. Our research ranges from understanding and improving human health, through to understanding evolutionary processes and uncovering new ways to protect the natural world. In 2020, we moved into a stunning new ~£60 million Health & Life Sciences building which has been purpose-built for science research and teaching.

You will be joining a vibrant community of ~180 PhD students in the School, representing ~40 nationalities. Our students publish in high-impact journals, present at international conferences, and organise a range of exciting outreach and public engagement activities.

During your PhD at the University of Reading, you will expand your research knowledge and skills, receiving supervision in one-to-one and small group sessions. You will have access to cutting-edge technology and learn the latest research techniques. We also provide dedicated training in important transferable skills that will support your career aspirations.

The University of Reading is a welcoming community for people of all faiths and cultures and we encourage applications from underrepresented groups to improve diversity in the biosciences. We are committed to a healthy work-life balance and will work to ensure that you are supported personally and academically.


Applicants should have a good degree (minimum of a UK Upper Second (2:1) undergraduate degree or equivalent) in an Ecological Sciences subject or related discipline; M.Sc. is desirable.

How to apply:

Submit an application for a PhD in Biological Sciences at

Please send a cover letter/letter of motivation (and any enquiries) to:

Dr Brian Pickles:

*Important notes*

1.    Please quote reference GS22-131 in the ‘Scholarships applied for’ box in the Funding Section of your application.

2.    When you are prompted to upload a research proposal, please omit this step as the project is already defined. 

Further information:


Funding Notes

- PhD fees and UKRI-equivalent stipend (£17,668 per year) provided
- Starting January/Early 2023


Guy P, Sibly R, Smart SM, Tibbett M, Pickles BJ. 2022. Mycorrhizal type of woody plants influences understory species richness in British broadleaved woodlands. New Phytologist 235: 2046–2053.
Messier, C., Bauhus, J., Sousa-Silva, R., Auge, H., Baeten, L., Barsoum, N., … & Zemp, D.C. (2021) For the sake of resilience and multifunctionality, let’s diversify planted forests! Conservation Letters
Desie, E., Zuo, J., Verheyen, K., Djukic, I., Van Meerbeek, K., Auge, H., Barsoum, N., … (in press) Disentangling drivers of litter decomposition in a multi-continent network of tree diversity experiments. Science of the Total Environment

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