Towards sustainable land management: Improving microbial nitrogen-sequestration from artificial soils

CASE award with the Eden Project (LENGGER_P19ARIES)

Towards sustainable land management: Improving microbial nitrogen-sequestration from artificial soils

CASE award with the Eden Project (LENGGER_P19ARIES)

Project Description


Dr Sabine Lengger (University of Plymouth)

Dr Mark Fitzsimons (University of Plymouth)

Dr Rachel Warmington (Eden Project)

Mrs Katie Treseder (Eden Project)

Dr Alex Dumbrell (University of Essex)

Dr Alan Tappin (University of Plymouth)

Scientific background

Healthy soils are the basis for sustainable agriculture, but they are threatened by erosion and nutrient loss, worsened by climate change. The use of artificial soils – mixtures of waste materials – would drastically increase the availability of soil for developments (ecotowns, agricultural land). Application of nitrogen (N)-rich materials is common practice when artificial soils are deployed, but it is not known if they really lack nutrients. This oversupply can result in strongly negative environmental impacts.

The project

You will characterise major 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 through regeneration of a disused quarry in Cornwall using locally sourced waste. 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 soil experiments using artificial soil prototypes.

2. Apply isotope ratio-mass spectrometry (15N, 18O, 13C) to identify sources and pathways of nutrient cycling.

3. Use molecular approaches to identify N-cycling organisms and communities.

4. Characterise the mechanisms of N-sourcing using open source statistical tools.

Supervisory team and training

You will be based at the University of Plymouth (Lengger, Fitzsimons, Tappin) where you will conduct experiments and analyses, and analyse the microbiome at the University of Essex (Dumbrell). You will collaborate with the Eden Project for fieldwork and an internship (Treseder and Warmington).

You will develop experimental, analytical, and transferable skills, through training from the supervisory team and the ARIES DTP. You will develop your skills in applied science, and communication with end-users.

Candidate profile

This project would suit a self-motivated student, 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 2:1 BSc in the Biological, Chemical, or Environmental Sciences, or related subject.


  • Galloway, J. N. et al. Transformation of the Nitrogen Cycle: Recent Trends, Questions, and Potential Solutions. Science 320, 889–892 (2008)
  • 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).
  • 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).
  • 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)
  • 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. Undertaking a PhD with ARIES will involve attendance at training events.
  • ARIES is committed to equality & diversity, and inclusion of students of any and all backgrounds. All ARIES Universities have Athena Swan Bronze status as a minimum.
  • Applicants from quantitative disciplines who may have limited environmental science experience may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take appropriate advanced-level courses.
  • Usually only UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a stipend. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 8th January 2019. Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 26th/27th February 2019.

Open for applications

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