Impact of soil structure on microbial responses to environmental change

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: School of Life Sciences


Environmental change and perturbation due to human activities can have devastating impacts on essential activities in soils, like biogeochemical cycling, that are essential to the earth's ecosystem functions. However, the influence of key physical variables like soil structure ("the soil phenotype") on ecosystem responses to such perturbations is very poorly understood. Such knowledge is critical to appreciate and predict the resilience of soil ecosystems to perturbations over time. Microorganisms drive biogeochemical cycles in soils and provide ideal, tractable indicators of soil ecosystem function. A major biological factor known to promote microbial resilience to soil perturbations is variation, as variant organisms may be better adapted to the altered conditions. Recent breakthroughs through NERC-funded projects in the Avery laboratory and other laboratories have established a novel form of biological variation that promotes microbial survival in soil systems; that is, phenotypic variation between individual cells that have the same DNA composition. It is now widely accepted that this variation within genetically-uniform populations (non-genotypic heterogeneity, NGH), is important for microbial survival in soils. The major challenge now is to understand how the type of soil environment may alter the impact of NGH on microbial survival over time. Specifically, with soils having different scales of spatial structure, this project will test the hypothesis that physical heterogeneity (soil structure) modulates the impact of NGH in soil populations. By addressing this major question, this studentship will help describe the resilience of soil ecosystems to environmental perturbation. The project will apply state-of the-art technologies underpinned by interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle this problem, addressing these key objectives:
Does NGH confer a competitive advantage in structured soils?
Does soil structure affect long-term evolution of NGH in stressed soil ecosystems?

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
NE/M009106/1 30/09/2015 29/09/2023
1949545 Studentship NE/M009106/1 30/09/2017 28/02/2021 Harry Harvey
Description Soil aggregation can impact how microorganisms within soil are exposed to environmental stress.
Soil pore size can also impact on this exposure.
Exploitation Route Method development of making aggregates.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Title Making soil aggregates with defined microbial composition 
Description Making soil aggregates with defined microbial composition and number allows for experiments with soil and organisms in a reproducible and refined manner. Method is currently in submission. 
Type Of Material Model of mechanisms or symptoms - non-mammalian in vivo 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact A manuscript is in submission, and we have determined that an organisms position within a soil aggregate can impact its response to environmental perturbation. 
Description Science in the park 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Science in the park took place at Wollaton Hall, where we had a stall dedicated to microbiology and specifically yeast. The event was attended by hundreds of individuals throughout the day, may of whom took interest in the stall and were able to see organisms down the microscope and relate them to anthropogenic application such as brewing, bread making, cheese production etc.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description U3A Outreach Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A talk for University of the third age, describing soil structure and soil microbiology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019