Developing sustainable soil ecosystems: Microbial ecology and biogeochemistry of nitrogen cycling in artificial soils

CASE award with Eden Project (LENGGER_P20ARIES)

Developing sustainable soil ecosystems: Microbial ecology and biogeochemistry of nitrogen cycling in artificial soils

CASE award with Eden Project (LENGGER_P20ARIES)

Project Description


Dr Sabine Lengger, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Plymouth

Prof Mark Fitzsimons, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Plymouth

Prof Alex Dumbrell, School of Life Sciences, University of Essex

Dr Rachel Warmington, Eden Project


Scientific background

Healthy soils are the basis for sustainable agriculture, but they are threatened by erosion, nutrient loss, and climate change. The use of artificial soils – mixtures of waste materials – would drastically increase the availability of soil for developments (ecotowns, agricultural land), however, this practice is not yet sustainable. Application of nitrogen (N)-rich fertilisers is common practice when artificial soils are deployed, but this is likely an oversupply that can result in negative environmental impacts, such as oxygen-poor marine environments. Microplastics from the waste materials could also be problematic.


In this exciting PhD project, you will characterise N-sources and N-cycling microbial communities in artificial soils, and use this knowledge to improve the formulation and management of artificial soils. This will underpin their wider implementation (e.g. as a resource for agriculture). You will do this in collaboration with the Eden Project, where the use of artificial soils was pioneered and is applied to regenerate sites in the UK, Canada, and China. There, you will have the opportunity to apply your findings, and make a lasting impact in line with the Eden global mission.


  1. Create and maintain experiments using artificial soil prototypes.
  2. Identify sources and pathways of nutrient cycling.
  3. Use molecular approaches to identify N-cycling organisms and communities.
  4. Collaborate with Eden Project sites to test findings in an applied setting.

Supervisory Team

You will be based at the UoP (Dr Lengger, Prof Fitzsimons) where you will conduct experiments and analyses, and analyse the microbiome at the UoE (Dr Dumbrell). You will collaborate with the Eden Project for field work and internships (Dr Warmington).


You will develop experimental, analytical, and transferable skills, through training from the supervisory team and the AERIES DTP. You will develop your skills in applied science, and science communication.

Candidate profile

This project would suit a self-motivated individual, with robust experimental experience. Relevant analytical skills, and an interest in hands-on, practical, soil science would be ideal. You should have or anticipate as a minimum a 1st or 2.1 BSc in the Biological, Chemical, or Environmental Sciences


  • 1. Galloway, J. N. et al. Transformation of the Nitrogen Cycle: Recent Trends, Questions, and Potential Solutions. Science 320, 889–892 (2008)
  • 2. Kendall, C. Chapter 16 - Tracing Nitrogen Sources and Cycling in Catchments. in Isotope Tracers in Catchment Hydrology (eds. Kendall, C. & McDONNELL, J. J.) 519–576 (Elsevier, 1998).
  • 3. Schofield, H. K., Pettitt, T. R., Tappin, A. D., Rollinson, G. K. & Fitzsimons, M. F. Does carbon limitation reduce nitrogen retention in soil? Environ. Chem. Lett. 16, 623–630 (2018).
  • 4. S. K. Lengger, Y. A. Lipsewers, H. de Haas, J. S. Sinninghe Damsté, S. Schouten, Lack of 13C-label incorporation suggests low turnover rates of thaumarchaeal intact polar tetraether lipids in sediments from the Iceland shelf. Biogeosciences. 11, 201–216 (2014)
  • 5. Dumbrell, A. J., Nelson, M., Helgason, T., Dytham, C. & Fitter, A. H. Relative roles of niche and neutral processes in structuring a soil microbial community. ISME J. 4, 337–345 (2010).

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, and will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award.
  • 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 (see
  • This studentship will start on 1st October 2020, and the closing date for applications is 23:59 on 15th January 2020.
  • Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 18/19 February 2020.
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor.
  • Please note that the joint NERC-ESRC ARIES-SeNSS studentship projects have different deadlines and funding arrangements. For full details please visit, or contact

Studentship Open for Applications

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