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Role of Fungal endophyte communities in Carbon and Nutrients Cycling in Forest Soils under elevated atmospheric C02 concentrations - Flagship

   NERC Doctoral Training Centre Studentships with CENTA

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  Dr M McDonald, Dr S Smart, Prof Sami Ullah  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


Background and Research Questions

As global atmospheric concentration of CO2 continues to rise, the question remains how will mature forests respond to either help or hinder carbon capture via photosynthesis and carbon sequestration subsequently. The Free Air Carbon Enrichment (FACE) experiment at the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research, seeks to answer this question by exposing a mature forest to elevated CO2 (+150 ppm above ambient levels) mimicking the atmosphere of the future (2050 and onwards). The first key results from this 10-year experiment indicates that the dominant oak trees exposed to eCO2 have a sustained elevated photosynthetic response, ~23% higher than trees in the ambient CO2 plot. Coupled with this increase in CO2 uptake rates, and fine root biomass and exudation of carbon by roots into soil have also increased. These changes in carbon allocation belowground can affect the symbiotic fungal communities associated with the dominant tree in relation to the symbiotic trade-offs between the trees and fungal communities. Trees offer organic carbon to fungi and fungi help in soil nutrient acquisition for trees. Thus with the observed changes induced by eCO2, it is very likely that the composition and activities of fungal endophytes will change. How such changes will affect fungal community size and eventually nutrient cycling? This studentship will thus evaluate changes in fungal endophytes communities composition, carbon metabolism and nutrient cycling as influenced by future climates to help support climate change mitigation policies.


This PhD project will answer these questions by identifying the number of different fungal species present in soils at the  BIFoR FACE site. This project will address three major knowledge gaps 1) What is the baseline fungal diversity in a mature Oak woodland and is this changing in response to eCO2? 2) What is the most common root endophyte associated with Oak trees? 3) Are root endophytes responding differently to eCO2 when compared to control arrays and how it affects carbon metabolism of fungi and eventually nutrient availability to trees?

Training and skills

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.

This project will require the student to gain skills in fungal ecology, coupled with high-throughput genomics and transcriptomics. The lead Supervisor M. McDonald is an expert on fungal genome assembly, annotation and in planta transcriptomics. Therefore the student will gain skills in the molecular identification of fungal species, long-read genome sequencing and assembly. The final part of the project will link together soil nutrient cycling with transcriptomics, giving the student a cross-disciplinary skillset in both fungal genomics as well as soil science.

This studentship benefits from access to the only global temperate forests Free Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment (FACE) facility and infrastructure (>£20million) ( and the Forest Ecology and and UKCEH-Lancaster). This studentship will benefit from the high experimental costs of these projects and facilities, which is beyond the funding capacity of any single PhD studentship.

Further details:

Megan McDonald:

Sami Ullah:

If you wish to apply to the project, applications should include:

  • A CENTA application form, downloadable from: CENTA application
  • A CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three and who can comment on your academic abilities)
  • The application should please completed via: Please select Apply Now in the PhD Bioscience (CENTA) section. Please quote CENTA23_B4 when completing the application form.

For further information on how to apply please visit

Funding Notes

Different support is available for “home-fees-eligible” and “international” students.
Successful home-fees-eligible candidates will receive:
An annual stipend, set at £17,688 for 2022/23, paid directly to the student in monthly increments
A research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000, held at their host institution
CASE studentships attract an additional £3500 contribution to the RTSG, held at their host institution
Successful international candidates will receive the above as well as a contribution to the university fees at the level of support for Home-fee-eligible students.
Successful home candidates will receive full university fees paid directly to the university.


BIFoR FACE Website:
A Gardner, Ds Ellsworth, Ky Crous, J Pritchard, Mackenzie Ar. 2021. Is photosynthetic enhancement sustained through three years of elevated CO2 exposure in 175-year old Quercus robur?, Tree Physiology, tpab090,
David B Collinge, Birgit Jensen, Hans JL Jørgensen. 2022. Fungal endophytes in plants and their relationship to plant disease. Current Opinion in Microbiology, 69:
Vadeboncoeur, M.A. 2010. Meta-analysis of fertilization experiments indicates multiple limiting nutrients in Northeastern deciduous forests. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 40(9): 1766–1780.
Treseder, K. 2004. A meta-analysis of mycorrhizal responses to nitrogen, phosphorus, and atmospheric CO2 in field studies. New Phytologist, doI:
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