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Towards sustainable land management: Improving microbial nitrogen-sequestration from artificial soils. Starting 1 October 2019

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  • Full or part time
    Dr S Lengger
    Dr M Fitzsimons
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Healthy soils are the basis for sustainable agriculture, but they are threatened by erosion and nutrient loss, worsened by climate change. The use of artificial soils - mixtures of waste materials – would drastically increase the availability of soil for developments (ecotowns, agricultural land). Application of nitrogen (N)-rich materials is common practice when artificial soils are deployed, but it is not known if they really lack nutrients. This oversupply can result in strongly negative environmental impacts.

In this PhD project, you will characterise major N-sources and N-cycling microbial communities in artificial soils, and use this knowledge to improve the formulation and management of artificial soils. This will underpin their wider implementation (e.g. as a resource for agriculture). You will do this in collaboration with the Eden Project, where the use of artificial soils was pioneered through regeneration of a disused quarry in Cornwall using locally sourced waste. There, you will have the opportunity to apply your findings, and make a lasting impact in line with the Eden global mission.


1. Create and maintain soil experiments using artificial soil prototypes.

2. Apply isotope ratio-mass spectrometry (15N, 18O, and 13C) to identify sources and pathways of nutrient cycling.

3. Identify N-cycling organisms and communities (lipid fingerprinting, metagenomic sequencing).

4. Characterise the mechanisms of N-sourcing using open source statistical tools.

You will be based at the University of Plymouth (Drs Lengger, Fitzsimons, Tappin) where you will conduct experiments and analyses. You will collaborate with the Eden Project for field work and an internship (Dr Warmington).

You will develop experimental, analytical, and transferable skills, through training from the supervisory team and dedicated courses. You will develop your skills in applied science, and communication with end-users.
This project would suit a self-motivated student, with robust experimental experience. Relevant analytical skills, and an interest in hands-on, practical, soil science would be ideal. You should have or anticipate as a minimum a 1st or 2.1 BSc in the biological, chemical, or environmental sciences.

For more information, you can contact Dr Sabine Lengger. However, applications must be in accordance with the details below.

How to apply
General information about applying for a research degree at the University of Plymouth.

Please apply via the online application form which can be found at: and click ‘Apply’.

Please mark it FAO Nikki King, clearly stating that you are applying for a PhD studentship within the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Please attach a covering letter detailing your suitability for the studentship, a CV, Research statement, and 2 academic references.

The closing date for applications is 12 noon on 31 May 2019. Shortlisted candidates will be invited for interview mid June. We regret that we may not be able to respond to all applications. Applicants who have not received an offer of a place by 30 June 2019 should consider their application has been unsuccessful on this occasion.

Funding Notes

The studentship is supported for three years and includes full home/EU tuition fees plus a stipend of £15,009 per annum. 

Applicants normally required to cover overseas fees will have to cover the difference between the home/EU and the overseas tuition fee rates (approximately £12,285 per annum).


Galloway, J. N. et al. Transformation of the Nitrogen Cycle: Recent Trends, Questions, and Potential Solutions. Science 320, 889–892 (2008)

Kendall, C. Chapter 16 - Tracing Nitrogen Sources and Cycling in Catchments. in Isotope Tracers in Catchment Hydrology (eds. Kendall, C. & McDONNELL, J. J.) 519–576 (Elsevier, 1998).

Schofield, H. K., Pettitt, T. R., Tappin, A. D., Rollinson, G. K. & Fitzsimons, M. F. Does carbon limitation reduce nitrogen retention in soil? Environ. Chem. Lett. 16, 623–630 (2018).

S. K. Lengger, Y. A. Lipsewers, H. de Haas, J. S. Sinninghe Damsté, S. Schouten, Lack of 13C-label incorporation suggests low turnover rates of thaumarchaeal intact polar tetraether lipids in sediments from the Iceland shelf. Biogeosciences. 11, 201–216 (2014)

Dumbrell, A. J., Nelson, M., Helgason, T., Dytham, C. & Fitter, A. H. Relative roles of niche and neutral processes in structuring a soil microbial community. ISME J. 4, 337–345 (2010).

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