Unravelling plant-soil processes as drivers of change in peatland ecosystem services

Posted on 7 November 2016

PhD funding available for up to 4 Years

Title: Unravelling plant-soil processes as drivers of change in peatland ecosystem services: linking habitat status to climate and management impacts on carbon dynamics and water quality

UK blanket bogs are a UK priority habitat supporting important biodiversity and ecosystem services (ES) specifically carbon (C) storage and water quality. However, most UK blanket bogs are in a degraded state with observed negative impacts on ecosystem services, but the underpinning soil processes are largely unknown. The overarching aim of this project is to explore if blanket bog status (active vs. degraded) can be linked to changes in below ground biota communities with predictable impacts on ES.

The project will link to an existing Defra project (http://peatland-es-uk.york.ac.uk/) at three heather dominated grouse moors in Northern England representing a narrow spectrum of 'active' to 'degraded' blanket bog habitat (based on vegetation and water tables), also consisting of replicated treatments of burning, mowing and uncut controls. This project will extend the habitat range in order to fill evidence gaps, which currently limit the ability of Natural England to provide best-practice advice for restoring and protecting blanket bogs.

The project will:

(1) test if empirical evidence holds true across a wider spectrum of habitat status;

(2) unravel plant-soil mediated differences in C cycling and water quality; 

(3) unpick the underpinning soil processes and identify potential key biota drivers, specifically heather associated ericoid mycorrhizas;

(4) determine responses to climate and management. The goal is to resolve the so far hidden plant-soil processes regulating peatland C cycling, which ultimately determine impacts on observed ES.

The student will design and conduct independent trials jointly with Natural England’s upland specialists and policy teams and Defra project staff alongside several key experiments:

A) Sample peat across a spectrum of active to degraded bogs and test with latest environmental meta-genomic tools to describe the soil biota community and detect patterns (e.g. correlative, clusters).

B) Seasonal plant and soil C flux chamber, water quality and meta-genomic measurements on mesocosms from active to degraded sites (gradient) under different climate scenarios combined with Defra project data from mown, burnt and uncut control areas to capture, for the first time, a link of biota to C balance using light response curve modelling.

C) Perform novel controlled mesocosms incubation studies of deep and thus radiocarbon old peat with or without mycorrhizal or non-mycorrhizal plants and stable isotope C tracers and litter bags to assess decomposition and priming effects of soil biota as mediated through ericoid mycorrhizal associations.

This end-user driven multidisciplinary project combines leading C cycle techniques (Dr. Heinemeyer; main supervisor) with genomics work (Dr. Helgason) at York with mycorrhizal expertise at Sheffield (Prof. Leake). It will result in an exceptional PhD skill set within an applied Natural England context (Dr. Morecroft). This project is underpinned by training in highly employable research skills during the PhD, with a unique combination of skills available across the Universities of York & Sheffield and at Natural England. Combining the expertise will enable ground breaking applied science, specifically unravelling interactions between soil biota diversity, decomposition and water quality.

The student will be able to experience Natural England habitat assessments, management and policy work, putting research into an applied context and equip the student with an overarching knowledge of upland ecology underpinning key ES, providing a wide employment potential. It is anticipated that the student will spend their time mostly in York, split evenly between field, lab & incubation work and data analyses with shorter visits in Sheffield for targeted mycorrhizal work and some periods at Natural England offices.

This is an exciting opportunity for a student interested in undertaking cutting-edge science that delivers applied outcomes within a wider programme of work. Applicants should have a minimum of a 2:1 honours degree in Biology/Geography or a related area and a Masters degree in a relevant subject would be an advantage. The student should be able to work in challenging peatland terrain, have a valid UK driving licence and have an interest in land management, C cycling and soil biota, ideally including some molecular experience. The start date for the PhD will be autumn 2017 (likely 1st October 2017), but some flexibility is available.

Funding Notes

The studentship covers full UK/EU tuition fees and a tax-free maintenance stipend of £14,300 per year for up to 4 years. There is also a research and conference budget of around £15,000. This studentship is open to UK/EU applicants. Internationally fee-rated students are not eligible to apply.

If you wish to discuss this project further informally, please contact Dr Andreas Heinemeyer (andreas.heinemeyer@york.ac.uk).

The closing date for applications is 15 February 2017. Shortlisted candidates will be invited for interview, likely during the week beginning 13th March 2017.

Apply online here via FindAPhD