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Wood wide web–is carbon sequestration and the stability of mixed forests mediated by mycorrhizal networks?


   School of Agriculture, Policy and Development

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  Prof M Tibbett, Prof M Lukac  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

This PhD project relates to one of the most pressing issues of our time: Climate Change, addressing research questions that will help us to understand how to maximise the benefits of tree planting as a climate change mitigation strategy. We are a team of soil scientists, mycologists, forest ecologists and silviculturists from the University of Reading, the University of Manchester and Forest Research, coming together to share expert knowledge and research excellence to an applied end. Our project partners from Natural England and Forestry Commission England are custodians of the public forest estate and the government’s advisors for the natural environment in England.

Current climate projections show that England will have drier and warmer summers, resulting in increasing severity of drought conditions. Concomitantly, warmer growing seasons and rising CO2 concentrations might stimulate forest productivity where water and nutrient availability are not limiting. There is currently a paucity of evidence of how future climate will affect England’s forests and a long-term understanding likely effect is critical. All forests have networks of fungal hyphae which connect different trees. Called common mycorrhizal networks (CMN), these networks can increase drought tolerance and growth of trees because they facilitate an exchange of nutrients and water. The project will consider how CMN affect tree survival and growth and how diverse tree mixtures use CMN. There are two complementary PhD studentships, one at the University of Reading and one at the University of Manchester.

At Reading, you will study soil and tree carbon and nutrient cycles in a range of forest ecosystems and link these to the abundance and diversity of mycorrhizal fungi inhabiting the soil. A number of experimental tree species mixtures were planted in the 1960-90s to test their timber production and these have been monitored over decades. You will use this data and will generate your own measurements of soil carbon, nutrients and mycorrhizal communities, to describe the growth (carbon sequestration) potential and drought resilience of different forest types. Current afforestation goals make this information highly topical. Carbon sequestration in tree biomass and in the soil organic matter are considered important mechanisms for greenhouse gases removal. The fungi are the main link between trees and soil, exploiting the soil for nutrients and water, so their role in supporting drought resilience via enhanced tree nutrition may be critical to the survival of the forest. As part of this project you will measure carbon and nutrient concentrations in the soil and in various tree biomass compartments, such as leaves or branches. Along with mycorrhizal community analysis, the project will aim to describe the role of CMN in supporting forest nutrient status and growth.

The PhD will utilise Forest Research Long-term Experiments resource which includes several series of mature field experiments trialling different species and species mixtures, and different fertiliser treatments on a wide range of site types across England. You will help to select 4-5 sites representing contrasting environmental and soil conditions, making use of existing baseline soil survey data, foliar analysis data and stand growth assessments. The maturity of the experiments (30-60 years) will provide you with the opportunity to study long-term changes in soil carbon, nutrient and water conditions and aboveground carbon, well beyond the establishment phase. This is a unique opportunity to glimpse the future, you will help create a tool that will allow us to predict how future forests will react to predicted climate change. You will take part in field sampling campaigns at different experiment sites, and carry out lab analyses of your samples, either at Forest Research or at the University of Reading. The PhD may include a modelling exercise aimed at predicting carbon allocation to tree biomass compartments by the FR BSORT (a model that estimates of forest biomass) and CARBINE (a carbon accounting model).

You will receive training in field-based experimental work, field monitoring and associated laboratory analyses of collected samples for soil biogeochemical parameters and mycorrhizal techniques. You will also receive unique training in process-based modelling, research statistical design, statistical models and data management. You will also have opportunity to work with Forest Research on research translation into practical forest management measures and forest policy.  

This project would be suitable for students with a background in Environmental Science, Plant Science, Forestry, (Micro)Biology and/or Ecology. Applicants should preferably hold an MSc in a relevant subject and at minimum an upper 2nd class degree or equivalent. A desire to complete fundamental and applied research across academic, policy and practice arenas will be considered favourably.

To apply, please send your CV and cover letter (up to 2 pages describing how your expertise aligns with the role and why you consider yourself to be an ideal candidate for the position) to Prof Mark Tibbett [Email Address Removed]

Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed in late November or early December (online).

Supervisor/Contact details

For informal inquiries, contact

Prof. Mark Tibbett and Prof Martin Lukac

Email: [Email Address Removed];  [Email Address Removed]; 


Funding Notes

This is a DEFRA/NCF funded studentship supported by Forest Research for UK applicants. The starting bursary is £17,668 to match the standard UKRI stipend, and fieldwork travel and subsistence will be covered by the project budget. The studentship will begin in early 2023. The successful applicant will be based primarily either at the University of Reading, Forest Research (Alice Holt) or between the two depending on circumstances. Travel will be required for residencies with the other institutions and for fieldwork.
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