UK PhD studentship program

This project will investigate how underground soil biodiversity is affected by novel horticultural practices.

The studentship starts in October 2020 and is funded by NERC. Want to apply for this course? Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then send your application to

Application deadline: 6 January 2020

Project background

Human impacts on the natural environment are now so great that we are eroding our own economies and food security. Studies of how land-use change affects the biota nearly all consider only above-ground biodiversity, and most focus on taxa not strongly linked to key ecosystem services. Not enough is known about impacts on underground soil biodiversity, carbon and nutrient cycling.
The soil microbiome (bacteria, fungi and other protists) and small invertebrates are a major component of soils, are essential for maintaining key terrestrial ecosystems, and interact with the roots of plants in ways that affect plant growth, health, and resistance to pathogens.

Project Aims and Methods
Recent studies on horticultural crops such as tomato, strawberries and apples have shown that adding certain bacteria and fungi to crops can make it easier for plants to use the surrounding biodiversity by stimulating soil microbiota and endophytes (prebiotics), and to improve plant nutrition or protection against pathogens (probiotics), and subsequently may allow a reduction of the use of fertilisers and pesticides.

However, little is still known about the effect of novel horticultural practices on underground soil biodiversity and how to predict the response to crop types under conventional and organic management.

Statistical modelling to date mainly uses species data obtained by morphological identification but the integration of DNA-based taxa data from high throughput sequencing would also allow to consider bacteria and microbial eukaryote taxa data in addition to soil invertebrates in policy-relevant models.

The overall aims of the project are
• to assess and compare the biodiversity of microbiome and invertebrate communities from horticultural soils and crops using environmental DNA sequencing and metabarcoding and the range of biodiversity measures that these make available
• to integrate DNA sequencing data into policy-relevant models of how soil community composition will respond to novel horticultural approaches and management practices
• to evaluate if biotic responses are consistent among major taxa, guilds and habitats; and 4) refine existing models of how soil communities respond to agricultural management
• The PhD student will be able to develop their own specific questions to address as part of the studentship, and have the opportunity to gain expertise in analyzing soil microbial and invertebrate assemblages through a combination of environmental DNA and high-throughput sequencing, bioinformatics, statistical, meta-analytical analysis techniques. The studentship will be part of the H2020-funded Excalibur project that aims to evaluate the multifunctional potential of belowground biodiversity in horticultural farming. The newly-generated data will be supplemented with data from published papers, which will augment the PREDICTS database.
To be eligible for a full award a student must have:
• British Citizenship or;
• Settled status in the UK, meaning they have no restrictions on how long they can stay,
• Been ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK for 3 years prior to the start of the studentship – (For non-EU citizens, this must NOT have been in full time education.)
This means they must have been normally residing in the UK (apart from temporary or occasional absences). This does not apply to UK nationals.
For more information, download this PDF.

How to apply?

Applications for the PhD are processed through the Natural History Museum.

To apply, please send the following documents to the Postgraduate Office:
• Curriculum vitae
• Covering letter outlining your interest in the PhD position, relevant skills training, experience and qualifications for the research, and a statement of how this PhD project fits your career development plans
• Names of two academic referees
The deadline for applications is 6 January 2020.

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