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SUPER DTP: Impact of multiple climate stressors on microbial processes and carbon sequestration in peatlands

   School of Biological Sciences

Aberdeen United Kingdom Analytical Chemistry Biodiversity Climate Science Ecology Environmental Chemistry Genomics Hydrology Microbiology Molecular Biology Soil Science

About the Project

Peatlands represent one of the largest stores of terrestrial carbon, accounting for ~21% of the global total soil carbon stock. Increasing food and energy needs have led to drainage of peatlands for cropping and forestry that cause huge losses of carbon. Climate warming, increased drought occurrences and fires in these fragile ecosystems exacerbate uncertainty over the fate of peatland carbon. Increased effort is therefore required to develop sustainable management approaches for peatlands, which is expected to make an important contribution to climate change mitigation in Scotland.

Drainage and climate stressors such as drought and warming impact the hydrology of wetlands such that the removal of water-logged anoxic conditions leads to increased decomposition of the otherwise preserved peat organic matter and release of CO2 back to the atmosphere (Kitson & Bell, 2020; Tiemeyer et al., 2016). Such conditions may reduce methane emissions but increased CO2 release outweighs the climate benefits of methane reduction in terms of long-term global warming potential (Huang et al., 2021). Fires, on the other hand, primarily affect belowground carbon cycling through change in aboveground organic matter and therefore decomposition rates and CO2 flux.

Microbes (bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi and other microeukaryotes) act as gatekeepers of soil-atmosphere carbon exchange because their growth, activity and interactions with the environment control the fate of carbon inputs (Malik et al., 2018). However, there is a lack of mechanistic understanding of the microbial physiological processes in peatlands that are responsible for carbon cycling, and their sensitivity to multiple climate stressors such as warming, drought and fire (Ritson et al., 2021).

The project aims to investigate microbial carbon cycling processes in intact and degraded peatlands that are under the influence of climate extremes, which are becoming increasingly frequent. There is a general consensus that degraded peatlands are less resilient to climate extremes such as severe droughts, heatwaves and fires in comparison to intact peatlands (Page & Baird, 2016). This PhD project will rigorously test the response of microbial functions and carbon sequestration rates to climate extremes. Such assessments will be performed in intact and degraded (or recently restored) peatlands at multiple sites in Scotland (Flow Country and Cairngorms). Access to experimental sites subject to climate extremes will be available. In addition, we will perform mesocosm experiments simulating multiple climate stressors, individually and in combinations, in intact and degraded peatlands to study the resilience of microbial processes and carbon cycle feedbacks.

Microbial physiological processes will be examined using a trait-based framework employing a combination of metabolic assays, shotgun metagenomic assessments and gas flux measurements. Such a combination of genotypic and phenotypic measurements will enable the project to link genomic traits to carbon sequestration rates under different treatment combinations. Taken together, this knowledge will provide the basis for better prediction and management of microbial processes in peatlands to enhance carbon storage under future climate.

It may be possible to undertake this project part-time, in discussion with the lead supervisor, however, please note that part-time study is unavailable to students who require a Student Visa to study within the UK.

Informal enquiries would be welcomed for a discussion. Please contact Dr Ashish Malik () for more information.

Academic Eligibility:

Applicants to the SUPER DTP are expected to have a minimum of a 2:1 UK honours degree (or equivalent). Applicants with a 2:2 at honours level will be considered on the condition they have a distinction at Masters level (or equivalent).

Application Procedure:

  • Please visit this page for full instructions on how to submit your application
  • Please DO NOT apply through the University application portal

Application enquiries should be made to  . Please ensure you enter SUPER DTP in the subject box.

Funding Notes

This is a 42 month full time (or 84 months part time), directly funded project as part of the SUPER DTP which provides:
*A Stipend based on RCUK rates
*UK Level Tuition Fees
*Research and Training Costs
This opportunity is open to UK and International applicants. Successful international candidates will receive a fee waiver from the University of Aberdeen School of Biological Sciences to cover the difference between UK and International rate tuition fees (Please note that international place numbers are limited).


• Kitson, E., & Bell, N. G. A. (2020). The Response of Microbial Communities to Peatland Drainage and Rewetting. A Review. Frontiers in Microbiology, 11, 2647–2647.
• Tiemeyer, B., et al. (2016). High emissions of greenhouse gases from grasslands on peat and other organic soils. Global Change Biology, 22(12), 4134–4149.
• Huang, Y., et al. (2021). Tradeoff of CO2 and CH4 emissions from global peatlands under water-table drawdown. Nature Climate Change.
• Malik, A. A., et al. (2018). Land use driven change in soil pH affects microbial carbon cycling processes. Nature Communications, 9(3591), 3591–3591.
• Ritson, J. P., et al. (2021). Towards a microbial process-based understanding of the resilience of peatland ecosystem service provisioning – A research agenda. Science of The Total Environment, 759, 143467–143467.
• Page, S. E., & Baird, A. J. (2016). Peatlands and Global Change: Response and Resilience. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 41(1), 35–57.

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