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  Towards more sustainable use of phosphorus in UK grasslands considering soil-plant interactions

   Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health

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  Dr V Niasar, Prof D Johnson, Dr Susan Lee  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

This ambitious project will lead to a major shift in how soil phosphorus (P), is managed in UK grasslands. We lack critical knowledge of how grassland plants may use native forms of soil P, such as simple and complex organic forms, in addition to inorganic forms of P provided through mineralisation processes and by fertiliser additions. Our multidisciplinary proposal will focus on understanding interactions between soil chemistry (such as minerals, salinity and pH), soil type, and symbiotic fungi to generate models to improve P use management. Grasslands (including those used for forage crop production) are a vital component of the UK agricultural landscape because they cover large areas of the land surface and are key to sustaining the UK livestock industry. Moreover, they are vital reservoirs of biodiversity and provide numerous other ecosystem services. The project brings together complementary expertise in crop science, soil chemistry, biogeochemical cycling, mycorrhizal ecology, advanced analytical chemistry, and advanced computational soil-plant interaction. The student will use experimental mesocosm systems to provide empirical data to develop and validate models of P use under contrasting environmental conditions. The objectives of this research are to 1) enhance the state-of-the-art understanding of the mechanisms by which grassland plants obtain P from both organic and inorganic forms in soil and the reciprocal exchange of nutrients between symbiotic fungi and plants, and 2) develop a coupled model that can capture the physical, chemical, biological processes in soil-crop-mycorrhizal fungal system to establish the dynamics of P and carbon flows and estimate the size of P pools in the system.

The project will benefit from the infrastructure at The University of Manchester, which has invested to create a leading centre for plant and soil science research. The research staff will be working alongside colleagues in closely related areas including soil biogeochemistry, soil ecology and plant physiological ecology. The research staff will have access to dedicated state-of-the-art laboratories and will be part of the active research groups of the investigators and Project Partners. Specifically, UoM has access to cutting-edge instrumentation for tracing and quantifying radioisotopes, visualisation of fungal colonisation of roots, nutrient analysis and molecular analysis of mycorrhizal fungal communities.

For international students we also offer a unique 4 year PhD programme that gives you the opportunity to undertake an accredited Teaching Certificate whilst carrying out an independent research project across a range of biological, medical and health sciences. For more information please visit

Funding Notes

Candidates are expected to hold a minimum upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in plant science and agriculture with good mathematical knowledge. Candidates with experience in numerical simulation and programming are encouraged to apply.

This project has a Band 1 fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website ( For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website (

Informal enquiries may be made directly to the primary supervisor.


1) Liu X, Burslem DFRP, Taylor JD, Taylor AFS, Khoo E, Majalap-Lee N, Helgason T, Johnson D (2018) Partitioning of soil phosphorus among arbuscular and ectomycorrhizal trees in tropical and subtropical forests. Ecology Letters 21, 713-723.
2) Meharg C, Khan B, Norton G, Deacon C, Johnson D, Reinhardt R, Huettel B & Meharg AA (2014) Trait-directed de novo population transcriptome dissects genetic regulation of a balanced polymorphism in phosphorus nutrition/arsenate tolerance in a wild grass, Holcus lanatus L. New Phytologist 201, 144-154. doi: 10.1111/nph.12491
3) Fierer N, Leff J, Bardgett RD, Wilkinson A, Jackson B, Pritchard W, DeLong J, Oakley S, Mason K, Ostle N, Johnson D, Baggs EM (2018) Predicting the structure of soil communities from plant community taxonomy, phylogeny, and traits. ISME J 12, 1794-1805.
4) Betts, R.A., Cox, P.M., Lee, S.E. & Woodward, F.I. 1997. Contrasting physiological and structural vegetation feedbacks in climate change simulations. Nature, 387, 796–799.
5) Magnone D, Niasar VJ, Bowmann L, van der Zee, S, Sattari Z (2018) Soil chemistry aspects of predicting future phosphorus requirements in Sub-Saharan Africa, Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems, minor revision.