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Saving our forests – how does elevated CO2 impact tree health?

Principal Supervisor: Professor Murray Grant, School of Life Sciences

Co-supervisor: Patrick Schaefer (SLS) Lijiang Song (Chemistry), Michael Tausz (Birmingham)

PhD project title: Saving our forests – how does elevated CO2 impact tree health?

University of Registration: University of Warwick

Project outline:

Overview: Climate change is arguably the biggest threat to our forest ecosystems. Forests not only influence soil, water, temperature and light regimes as well as providing habitats for a large number of animals, birds and insects, but also have a dramatic impact on carbon sequestration, absorbing as much as 30% of annual global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Most current models fail to consider the impact on forest ecosystems, the forest microbiome and consequently forest health. Elevated CO2 could modify pathogen profiles, decouple tree innate immunity and alter carbon metabolism (and hence potential nutrient resources for invading and beneficial microbes).


The best way to simulate long term elevated CO2 levels on plant ecosystems is by Free-Air CO2 Enrichment (FACE). On cropss elevated CO2 typically results in enhanced plant growth and increased water use efficiency but nothing is known about impact on tree health. We will explore the impact of elevated CO2 on tree health in in the context of the tree as a community, we will evaluate associated pathogen profiles, the impact on phyllosphere communities and changes in the leaf metabolme.

This project will exploit unprecedented access to Birmingham Universities unique forest FACE facility. We will explore both temporal changes in phyllosphere communities as they adapt to elevated CO2 conditions and associated changes in the leaf metabolome, integrating a range of biophysical data automatically captured at the face facility.

The BIFoR FACE located in 150year-old Oak/Hazel woodland (Fig. 1) is globally unique and provides unprecedented opportunity to study the impact of elevated CO2 on forests and on their microbial communities. Leaf samples from canopy, south, north and sub-canopy locations will be collected three times/year (3[plots] X 4[spatial samples/plot] X 3[replicates] X 3[plots]). Phyllosphere profiling and untargeted metabolite profiling) will be undertaken using established methods in the Grant/Schafer/Song groups. Comparisons between elevated CO2 and control plots will capture changes in the phyllosphere communities and leaf metabolism following elevated CO2 treatment, as well as any spatial differences that reflect adaptation to different canopy locations.

Training and skills: This is a multidisciplinary project involving large data generation, visualisation and interpretation. Full training will be provided in RNA extraction and library generation (MG); small molecule extraction and sample preparation for metabolite profiling (MG), phyllosphere data analysis (PS), metabolite data analysis (LS) and RNA data analysis.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Food Security

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

  • Transcriptomic profiling and data analysis
  • Metabolomics. Untargeted and targeted analysis of oak leaves
  • Data analysis (metabolomics and RNA-seq skills) and data integration – both transcript and metabolite as well as a series of physical data already captured by the BIoFor FACE team

Contact: Professor Murray Grant, University of Warwick