Factors controlling microbial nitrogen cycling and nitrogen pollution from farm to coast


Factors controlling microbial nitrogen cycling and nitrogen pollution from farm to coast


Project Description


Dr Karen Tait (Plymouth Marine Laboratory) – Contact me

Professor William Blake (School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Plymouth University)

Dr Andy Rees (Plymouth Marine Laboratory)

Dr Laura Cardenas (Rothamsted Research)


Project Background

The leaching of nitrate into waterways from farmland causes problems for drinking water quality, fisheries and bathing waters and dramatically impacts the biodiversity of waterways. Agriculture is also a major source of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O). Progress has been made in controlling these emissions, but to reduce them further, we need to fully understand the factors influencing nitrogen pollution along the gradient between land and sea, particularly within the context of changing land use and increasing extreme weather events.

Project aims

The key to unlocking the flow of nitrate and N2O is to study the actions of the soil, sediment and water dwelling nitrogen cycling microbes that are responsible for the conversion of nitrate to N2O. In this PhD you will provide detailed insight of key sources of nitrate and N2O entering the Tamar catchment (local to Plymouth) and how nitrogen cycling microbes can influence their removal, turnover, or production. You will also determine the influence of changing land use, extreme weather and season on nitrogen cycling microbes to understand and predict the biological sensitivities of nitrogen pollution to anthropogenic and environmental pressures from farm to coast.


The supervisory team are committed to providing you with a comprehensive training experience, providing you with the skills required for a future in scientific research. Most of your time will be spent at Plymouth Marine Laboratory making use of PML’s research vessels, and state-of-the-art molecular biology and analytical chemistry laboratories. You will have access to facilities at Rothamsted’s North Wyke Farm Platform. You will learn a range of readily transferable skills including rigorous experimental design, molecular biology (quantitative PCR, sequencing, bioinformatics), analytical chemistry, training in the biogeochemistry of riverine, estuarine and coastal systems and catchment hydrological processes. You will also be taught a wide range of professional skills (statistics, writing, communication).

Person Specification

We seek an enthusiastic, self-motivated candidate, with a strong attention to detail. This project requires a student willing to undertake both land and boat-based field work. You will have a BSc in biology, chemistry or a suitable branch of environmental sciences.


  • 1) Rees AP, Brown IJ, Jayakumar A, Lessin G, Somerfield PJ, Ward BB.(2021) Biological nitrous oxide consumption in oxygenated waters of the high latitude Atlantic Ocean. Communications Earth & Environment doi:1038/s43247-021-00104-y
  • 2) Blake WH, Kelly C, Wynants M, Patrick A, Lewin S, Lawson J, Nasolwa E, Page A, Nasseri M, Marks C, Gilvear D, Mtei K, Munishi L, Ndakidemi P (2020) Integrating land-water-people connectivity concepts across disciplines for co-design of soil erosion solutions. Land Degradation and Development doi: 10.1002/ldr.3791
  • 3) Cardenas LM, Bhogal A, Chadwick DR, McGeough K, Misselbrook T, Rees RM, Thorman RE, Watson CJ, Williams JR, Smith KA, Calvet S. (2019) Nitrogen use efficiency and nitrous oxide emissions from five UK fertilised grasslands. Science of the Total Environment doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.01.082
  • 4) Kitidis V, Tait K, Nunes J, Brown I, Woodward EM, Harris C, Sabadel AJ, Sivyer DB, Silburn B, Kröger S. (2017) Seasonal benthic nitrogen cycling in a temperate shelf sea: the Celtic Sea. Biogeochemistry doi:10.1007/s10533-017-0311-3
  • 5) Chadwick D, Sommer S, Thorman R, Fangueiro D, Cardenas L, Amon B, Misselbrook T. Manure management: Implications for greenhouse gas emissions. (2011) Animal Feed Science and Technology doi:10.1016/j.anifeedsci.2011.04.036

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2022. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 12th January 2022.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£15,609 p.a. for 2021-22) and research funding. International applicants (EU and non-EU) are eligible for fully-funded UKRI studentships. Please note ARIES funding does not cover visa costs (including immigration health surcharge) or other additional costs associated with relocation to the UK.
  • ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and ARIES provides £2,500 to every student for access to external training, travel and conferences. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses in the subject area.
  • ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion in all areas of its operation. We encourage enquiries and applications from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation and transgender status. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience, and our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience.
  • All ARIES studentships may be undertaken on a part-time or full-time basis, visa requirements notwithstanding
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor. To apply for this Studentship click on the “Apply now” link below.
  • ARIES is required by our funders to collect Equality and Diversity Information from all of our applicants. The information you provide will be used solely for monitoring and statistical purposes; it will remain confidential, and will be stored on the UEA sharepoint server. Data will not be shared with those involved in making decisions on the award of Studentships, and will have no influence on the success of your application. It will only be shared outside of this group in an anonymised and aggregated form. You will be ask to complete the form by the University to which you apply.

Applications are open

Apply now