Towards a microbial process-based understanding of the resilience of UK peatland systems

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Environment, Education and Development


Peatlands are the largest store of terrestrial carbon in the UK and carbon uptake and release from these systems is highly sensitive to changes in climate and human impacts on the peatland ecosystem. This application will aim to define a series of key research questions around the contribution of UK upland peatlands to climate resilience, particularly with respect to resilience of carbon stores to drought and flood in restored and eroded landscapes. We aim to co-produce these research questions through engagement with two key academic communities and with peatlands practitioners and to define them in an authoritative state of the science paper. The project will bring together a multidisciplinary group of peatlands scientists, microbiologists and peatland management practitioners. Other key outputs will be a Prioritised Research Plan and a Stakeholder Guidance document.
While there has been work on the impact of upland restoration on peatland carbon dynamics, the process understanding of the links between climate change, flood, drought and peatland carbon storage is limited, and the potential connection with climate resilience is unclear. The processes governing carbon store resilience are predominantly microbial, requiring collaboration between microbiologists and the well-established communities of peatlands scientists and practitioners. Through considering the role of microbes in driving the resilience of the carbon store in peatlands the proposal addresses objective 1, knowledge gap 2 and objective 2 of the UK Climate Resilience programme.
We are requesting £45 k to define the key research questions linking microbial diversity and function to the resilience of the peatland carbon store.
We propose five activities:
1) convening a series of interdisciplinary workshops of leading UK and international microbiologists, peatland scientists and restoration practitioners to develop interdisciplinary research approaches to understanding peatland response to flood and drought;
2) formulating a Prioritised Research Plan and a Stakeholder Guidance document from these workshops;
3) work with peatland stakeholder groups to develop practical applications of the process understanding (e.g. use of microbial community data as indicators of restoration success);
4) engagement with groups modelling UK climate resilience to incorporate data on uplands and upland processes into wider UK climate resilience work;
5) synthesis of the findings from these activities with a major review of the literature to define the state of the science and key research questions to develop a process based understanding of the potential role of peatlands in climate resilience.

Planned Impact

a. who could potentially benefit from the proposed research over different timescales?
The main beneficiaries are the UK climate resilience community, managers of upland peatlands (e.g Natural England, National Trust, water companies and moorland owners), and peatland policy makers (DEFRA, NRW, SEPA). More broadly beneficiaries are UK populations dependent on peatland ecosystem services who will benefit from more process based management of the peatland resource delivering resilience of these services under conditions of climate change. Connections with the general public will be supported through engagement with the stakeholders, (particularly MFFP) and the wider UK Climate Resilience programme. The community building and understanding delivered through the programme will occur within programme timescales, longer term benefits will accrue from the research base that the programme will establish. We would expect substantive research bids from the community to focus on the key research questions emerging from the state of science work.

b. how might the potential beneficiaries benefit?
The primary aim of this project is to build a community of peatland scientists, microbiologists, and peatland practitioners/policy makers engaged around exploring the benefits of understanding the microbial mechanisms underpinning climate regulation and delivery of other ecosystem services through peatland restoration. The key benefits will be development of a consensus understanding of the current state of the science and the building of a network to research the key science questions linking this mechanistic understanding with delivery of climate resilience for these systems.


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Description Key findings have been summarised in the publised research agenda that has emerged from the series of four workshops. In summary these are:
- Although microbes are key to peatland function the underpinning processes are unclear.
- Microbial characterisation is needed across a range of sites, depths and conditions.
- Temporal and spatial changes in microbial communities need to be linked to functions.
- Potential to use microbiome as a monitoring tool for peatland restoration progress
- Enhancing microbial communities could improve peatland resilience.

In addition a state of the science paper co-authored by a large number of workshop participants is in the final stages of community editing prior to submission for publication.

One overarching finding is that there is an unarguable need for multidisciplinary working in this area. Many of the researchers brought together did not previously know each other and there is a consensus that the methods of genetic analysis of microbial community and function have advanced so far and so fast that generalists have been left behind.
Exploitation Route We expect that the published research agenda will influence further work and that there are clear opportunities for practitioners to consider ways in which microbial status might be developed as an indicator of peatland function. In addition a key aim of this project was to develop a community of scientists to take forward the key research questions identified and there are two large grants currently under consideration by funding bodies which have developed directly from these collaborations
Sectors Environment

Description The projects principle aim has been community building and the fourth workshop was aimed at bringing the expertise of peatland practitioners into the discussion. Feedback was that this raised their awareness of the role of microbial processes in peatland function. This has been being followed up with a practitioner facing policy brief which has been viewed/downloaded 26 times from our website
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Contribution to BES peatlands group newsletter 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Newsletter article to highlight the key findings of the project and drive traffic to the website to access the papers and policy brief
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Contribution to the IUCN petalnd program newsletter 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Newsletter article highlighting the key findings of the project and advertising the link to the project website for links to the papers and policy brief
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Invited presentation to the IUCN peatland programme annual conference December 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Presentation to the IUCN peatland programme annual conference. The talk was presented to a mixed group of academics, practitioners and policy makers and remains on the conference website until May 2021. The talk presented the key findings of the project and referenced the STOTEN discussion paper. Part of the aim was to drive traffic to the project website to pick up the paper and the policy brief
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Practitioner Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact One day workshop with practitioners, microbial ecologists and peatland scientists to discuss practical applications of microbial understanding in the context of estimating peatland function and peatland resilience
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Presentation to the NERC Climate Resilience Webinar series 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact This was a presentation to a mixed audience as part of the Climate Resilience programme webinar series. There was a good audience and positive feedback and good discussion on the project outcomes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021