Primary Supervisor: Professor Gary Bending, School of Life Sciences
Secondary supervisor: Dr Ryan Mushinski (SLS); Prof Jane Rickson, Cranfield Soil and Agrifood Institute, Cranfield University, Prof James Covington, School of Engineering, University of Warwick
PhD project title: Resilience of soil surface microbial communities and their ecosystem functions to extreme weather
University of Registration: University of Warwick
Soil possesses a complex biological layer at the surface, comprised of cyanobacteria, bacteria, algae and bryophytes. These have been well studied in deserts, where they have considerable environmental importance because of their role in nitrogen and carbon fixation, determining water infiltration and evaporation and protecting the soil against erosion. We have shown that such biological soil crusts (BSC) can also form in temperate agricultural soils, and have similar biological compositions to those in desert soils, suggesting that they may perform similar, vital, ecosystem roles.
Climate change is affecting weather patterns, increasing the frequency, magnitude and duration of extreme weather events such as high temperature, drought, flooding and extreme rainfall. Since BSC inhabit the interface between the atmosphere and the soil, the resilience of BSC to changes in weather patterns is likely to play a key role in determining how extreme weather events impact soil sustainability and resilience of its ecosystem functions.
You will investigate the ecosystem functions of BSC including their role in the production and consumption of greenhouse gases, and the extent to which they fix N from the atmosphere. This will be complemented with molecular profiling of functional genes and metagenomic profiling, to provide a mechanistic understanding of the way in which BSC drive soil biogeochemical cycles. You will also investigate the potential of the BSC to alter the physical structure of the soil surface and to protect the soil against erosion. You will use the unique rainfall simulation facilities at Cranfield to test the resilience of BSC ecosystem functions to future climatic regimes and extreme weather events. Within the programme you will investigate the potential for using sensor technology which is currently being developed at Warwick to provide continuous reporting of greenhouse gas and other metabolite emissions from soil, enabling fine level resolution of BSC community responses to climatic variables.
- Belnap, J. (2006) The potential roles of biological soil crusts in dryland hydrologic cycles. Hydrological Processes 20, 3159-3178.
- Mullan, D. (2013) Soil erosion under the impacts of future climate change: Assessing the statistical significance of future changes and the potential on-site and off-site problems. Catena 109 234–246.
- Porada et al. (2019) Global NO and HONO emissions of biological soil crusts estimated by a process-based non-vascular vegetation model. Biogeosciences 16, 2003–2031.
BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Sustainable Agriculture and Food: Plant and Crop Science
Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:
Multivariate statistical analysis
Trace gas analysis
Use and development of greenhouse gas sensors
Soil erosion quantification
Contact: Professor Gary Bending, University of Warwick