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Soil microbes to mitigate climate change

Project Description

Why is this project important?
Human populations are expected to increase by 50% to 9 billion by 2050 as climate change continues – together these changes will place unprecedented pressure on the Earth’s finite and fragile natural resources. There is growing social, economic and political concern about the impacts of climate and land use change on global biodiversity and the goods that the environment supplies. A key challenge is to manage terrestrial ecosystems sustainably whilst mitigating climate change. An immediate opportunity is to reverse global soil organic carbon (SOC) losses, and increase soil carbon stocks by 0.4% per year, articulated as the proposed ‘4 per mille’ target (launched at COP21, 2015, This global initiative could halt the rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. However, identifying land management strategies to ‘lock up’ CO2 in soil is hampered by poor understanding of SOC stabilisation. Recent evidence shows that carbon compounds produced by microbes form the majority (50-80%) of SOC with the remainder derived from plant inputs (Sokol et al. 2018; Keiluweit et al 2015). Yet, the biophysical and chemical mechanisms determining the stabilisation and long-term persistence of SOC are highly uncertain (Liang et al. 2017).

PhD project research will focus on the potential to manage soil microbial communities as a means to sequester atmospheric CO2 in the soil, to achieve the 0.4% target. The project will investigate mineralogical and microbial processes that transform and stabilize soil organic carbon using an experimental approach combining ‘state-of-the-art’ biogeochemical and stable isotope techniques to address the following research question:

How do microbial and mineralogical mechanisms together determine the stabilization and long-term persistence of soil organic carbon?

What’s in it for you?
A comprehensive training programme will be provided by CEH, Lancaster University, University of Leeds and the Envision DTP programme, including specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills. The student will gain access to ‘state-of-the-art’ equipment and instruments receiving in-house training at CEH Lancaster and Lancaster University in plant-soil biogeochemical analyses, use and analysis of 13C stable isotope tracers in gases, soils and microbial biomass, and measures of soil microbial abundance and activity (e.g. PLFAs, extracellular enzyme activity). At University of Leeds, the student will receive specialist training in mineral and organo-mineral synthesis and characterisation, plus training in advanced techniques for nanoscale organo-mineral investigation (including electron microscopy and synchrotron analyses).

Where will you be based?
The student will be hosted by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology at Lancaster benefiting from interactions with PhD students and PDRAs at CEH and the Lancaster Environment Centre. In addition, the student will spend time in the Peacock Lab. at the University of Leeds receiving specialist training detailed above. They will also complete a 4 week internship in Houston, Texas, USA with the industrial CASE partner Dr Christian Davies (Lead scientist of the Nature Based Solutions programme, Shell International Exploration and Production). The student will gain experience of industrial R&D projects on the role of land use and soils in carbon offsets and carbon markets.

Who should apply?
Applicants for this Envision DTP PhD studentship must have obtained, or about to obtain, a 1st or 2.1 degree in disciplines including Environmental science, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, Natural Sciences, Soil Science or similar. If you have a 2.2 degree, but have also obtained a masters qualification, you are also eligible. Substantial relevant post-graduate experience may also be sufficient, please contact the supervisors for more information.

Project supervisors: Dr Jeanette Whitaker (Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Lancaster), Prof. Nick Ostle (Lancaster University), Prof. Caroline Peacock (University of Leeds), Dr Christian Davies (CASE supervisor, Shell International Exploration and Production Inc.)

Please apply via the ENVISION portal:

Funding Notes

This project is one of a number of proposed topics that are in competition for funding from the NERC Envision Doctoral Training Partnership View Website.

Full studentships (fees and stipend) are only available to UK nationals and other EU nationals that have resided in the UK for three years prior to commencing the studentship. If you are a citizen of an EU member state you will eligible for a fees-only award, and must be able to show at interview that you can support yourself for the duration of the studentship at the UKRI level.


Liang, C. et al. (2017). "The importance of anabolism in microbial control over soil carbon storage." Nature Microbiology 2(8).

Keiluweit, M. et al. (2015). "Mineral protection of soil carbon counteracted by root exudates." Nature Climate Change 5: 588.

Sokol et al (2018) Evidence for the primacy of living root inputs, not root or shoot litter, in forming soil organic carbon. New Phytologist.

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