The rhizosphere and soil health: from bench to field and back again

Lead Supervisor: Dr Stephen Rolfe, Animal and Plant Sciences
Co-supervisor: Dr Anna Krzywoszynska, Geography

Deadline: Monday 26th March 2018

Project Description
Soil health lies at the heart of global food security: healthy soils are productive and make crops resilient to biotic and abiotic stresses. However, our scientific understanding of soil health is limited. This is unsurprising given the complexity and dynamic nature of the rhizosphere – the region of the soil that is influenced by root exudates and associated complex microbial communities (the rhizobiome).

Achieving soil health both a scientific and a social challenge. Research findings about soil health have to be meaningful to land managers if they are to act on improving the health of their soils. This project aims to advance our understanding of soil health by studying the rhizobiome and linking these scientific findings with farmers’ assessments of soil quality.

The project will suit a graduate from biology with interests in soil microbiology and chemistry and in stakeholder engagement/public participation in science.

Farmers use their experience to classify soils as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but we do not know what indicators farmers use when making these designations nor how this relates to scientific understanding of soil health. The student will survey farmers to investigate indicators used in assessing soil health, examine the relationship between farmers’ and scientific assessments of soil health and actively engage farmers in scientific research.

The student will characterize the rhizobiome, using metabolomic and genomic techniques. Plant roots exude a complex mixture of metabolites that shape the composition of the rhizobiome. The rhizobiome also produces rhizosphere metabolites that, in turn, influence plant growth and health. This interplay between plants and soil microbes is central to the concept of healthy soils, with the rhizo-metabolome as the interface. The student will grow crops in soils identified by farmers as ‘good’ or ‘poor’ to relate their performance to the microbial and biochemical composition of the rhizosphere, using state-of-the art next-generation DNA sequencing and mass spectrometry techniques. These analyses will allow for selection of biomarkers of healthy soil, which will be tested in the field with key results disseminated to farmers and consultancy agencies.

The student will receive training in plant and soil characterisation, DNA sequencing of complex communities, analysis of metabolites and bioinformatics. The student will use the P3/Wolfson Centre for Disease Phenomics providing start-of-the art facilities for measuring plant performance to environmental stresses. The student will gain experience with land managers and how to engage with them, providing a unique opportunity to build bridges between cutting-edge biological research and farmers with ‘in-the-field’ hands-on experience.

Subject areas: Agricultural sciences, Botany/Plant Sciences, Microbiology, Agronomy and soil science, Geography

Funding notes
This four-year studentship will be fully funded at Home/EU or international rates. Support for travel and consumables (RTSG) will also be made available at standard rate of £2,627 per annum, with an additional one-off allowance of £1,000 for a computer in the first year.  Students will receive an annual stipend of £17,336.  Applications should be received and complete by Monday 26th March 2018.

What to include in the application
Your application for this studentship should be accompanied by a CV and a 200 word supporting statement. Your statement should outline your aspirations and motivation for studying in the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures. You should also outline any relevant experience and interests that you have in sustainability issues.

Please select ‘Standard PhD’ and the department of this project’s lead supervisor. Fill in the title of your desired project and the name(s) of the supervisors. The starting date of the PhD will be the start of the next academic year – 1 Oct 2018. The ‘Funding stage’ on the form will be ‘project studentship’.