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The Microbial Back Box of Soil – Does What’s Inside Matter?


Postgraduate Training

About the Project

A single gram of soil can harbour in the order of 1010 bacteria and up to 52 000 individual species. However, the role of this diversity in regulating soil functions (e.g. nutrient cycling and greenhouse gas fluxes) is still remarkably poorly understood (the so-called microbial ‘black box’). Until recently, efforts to understand the role of microbial community composition were hampered by the difficulty and cost of characterizing diversity, but recent developments in next generation sequencing (NGS) have, if coupled with robust characterization of function, largely resolved this issue, shifting the scientific uncertainty to the role of microbial diversity in soil functioning. Physico-chemical conditions imposed in soils can have a dominating effect on microbial community composition and activity, but direct evidence that this controls the potential of these communities to drive soil processes is limited. This has led to the suggestion that microbial diversity per se is not a dominating control on soil functions, and that the huge diversity (and associated functional redundancy) facilitates resilient soil functioning, independent of community composition. However, soil is not a uniform environment and soil process rates are often dominated by hotspots of activity. A specific example is the soil around roots (rhizosphere), where it is now established that plant identity (species and genotype) is a key determinant of microbial communities (control on plant-associated microbiome).

The project will use next generation sequencing to determine whether functional communities differ between different grass species and use 13C and 15N stable isotope techniques to determine the fate of C and N, with the aim of identifying the relative contributions of plant driven selection of microorganism and soil environmental conditions (e.g. pH, moisture) on the rates and products of C and N cycling.

Funding Notes

The studentship is funded under the James Hutton Institute/University Joint PhD programme, in this case with the University of Edinburgh for a period of 4 years. Applicants should have a first-class honours degree in a relevant subject or a 2.1 honours degree plus Masters (or equivalent).Shortlisted candidates will be interviewed in Jan/Feb 2021. A more detailed plan of the studentship is available to candidates upon application. Funding is available for UK applications only. The James Hutton Institute is an equal opportunity employer. We celebrate diversity and are committed to creating an inclusive environment for all employees and students

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