Agri-Environments and Water

Agri-Environments and Water

Why this Theme?

This theme cross-cuts with many other ARIES themes, and interest lies not only in resource availability and management, but in industry drivers such as the global problem of microplastics both in marine and terrestrial environments, yeild and sustainable increases in land use, and drought/flooding.

There are exciting possibilities to geo-engineer and bio-engineer soils to increase yields and carbon storage, regulate greenhouse gas emissions and water flows, and mitigate pollution. However, these manipulations generate trade-offs where improved provision of one service might be to the detriment of others. ARIES will nurture research and training concerned with the holistic understanding of soil and the ecosystem services it supports. The food-energy-water nexus that is underpinned by soil requires the next generation of environmental scientists to undertake discovery science to influence environmental regulation and policy, and to engage with agri-water industries to deliver societal impact.

The global problem of microplastics was brought to prominence by ARIES partner UoP. Important gaps that ARIES research aims to fill include: improved detection, better understanding of processes that alter the transport and fate of microplastics, microplastics as vectors of persistent organic pollutants, challenges associated with removal of microplastics from waste streams, and non-plastic alternative micro-materials.


Collectively, ARIES partners have the joined-up expertise to identify small steps required to address the big questions. We may engineer better soils across the sediment-soil-microbe-plant-ecosystem continuum alongside expertise of socio-economic drivers and feedbacks to balance issues of equity, local values and feasibility. Specific expertise can be found in crop science (JIC), biogeochemical cycling, carbon storage and pollution mitigation (UEA, UoE, UoP, RHL, CEH, BGS), social sciences (UEA) and water flow / erosion (UoP, RHL, UEA, AW, BGS).

ARIES has excellence in waste-water treatment, riverine transport modelling, shelf-sea processes, ocean circulation and modelling, and the application of autonomous platforms. Once in the sea, biofilms and resulting production of extracellular polymeric substances alter the characteristics of microplastic surfaces affecting their uptake and transfer through marine food webs. ARIES has renowned expertise in environmental chemistry, microplastic diagnostics and impact assessment, and microbiology. Equally, ARIES is well equipped to address these issues with coastal and ocean-going research vessels, marine stations with easy access to southern and eastern research sites, and associated wet laboratories and aquaria, together with the state-of-the-art Coastal Ocean and Sediment Transport (COaST) wave tank (UoP, PML, MBA, UEA, UoE). Minimising microplastics from waste streams is a major challenge to the water industry, and so Anglian Water’s expertise and facilities will be complemented by those of other partners to investigate integrated optical and electrostatic removal technologies.

Student training and employability

Students will receive training in the advanced skills required for their project from multidisciplinary supervisory and support teams. Skills will include combinations of chemistry, microbiology and community ecology. The projects are end-user focussed (e.g. informing the legal framework for discharge consent limits and development/scale-up of methods for microplastic removal), and students will benefit from ARIES end-user partners in their projects. Core numeracy skills will be enhanced by the diverse ARIES offerings, so that students can analyse large, long-term data sets and model microplastic fate and transport, resulting in rounded graduates with a wealth of skills in demand by diverse sectors.

Wider engagement

ARIES has a wealth of collaborating partners who add great value to this topic, e.g. The Sainsbury Laboratory, with world-renowned expertise in plant-microbe interactions, form a pivotal link between soil science and food security. ARIES partners have valuable collaborations with current Case partners, such AB Vista (developing products for animal feed and nutrition) and ADC BioScientific Ltd. (developing soil / plant monitoring equipment). The involvement of the Defra Group ensures that ARIES research is informed by policy. Community support for interventions and long-term socio-economic gains is essential, and so projects in this priority topic will benefit from input from the social sciences (e.g. via the ESRC DTPs SeNNS and SWDTP).

As outlined above, the involvement of ARIES end-user partners will be important for success in this Priority Topic, including water and engineering companies (notably Anglian Water), the EA, and Cefas, MMO and PMLA in the context of coastal processes.

Hot Topics in this Theme

❖ How to attribute changes in the level of hazardous chemicals, metals, etc. to ecosystem service provision – particularly when there is not a detailed mapped baseline or where there may be chemical interactions within the environment.

❖ What is the amount of land required to feed the population and mitigate climate change to 1.5°C and where is it (taking into account water constraints)?

❖ What combination of social, political and technical conditions are needed to ensure that these land and water requirements are compatible with preserving biodiversity and how do we achieve those conditions?

❖ How can we better promote sustainable development in wildlife corridors?

Theme Leaders

Prof Tracy Lawson, Professor of Plant Physiology, University of Essex
Prof Tracy Lawson received her PhD in Heterogneity in Stomatal Characters from the University of Dundee before working at the Universities of Nottingham, Essex and the Australian National University in Canberra. She re-joined the University of Essex in 2007 and took up her current position as a Professor of Plant Physiology in 2016. Her current research interests include: Stomatal physiology – focusing on the stomatal control of gas exchange between the leaf and the atmosphere; Plant phenotyping – this work has involved development of novel phenotyping tools to screen plant water use efficiency, and dynamic phenotyping for kinetic responses in photosynthesis and stomatal behaviour; Cyanobacterial physiology – Oceans play a major role in the global carbon cycle, with about 50% of the Earths photosynthesis each year occurring in aquatic marine environments, representing a major sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). She is interested in the mechanisms that allow photosynthesis and N2 fixation to occur simultaneously in Trichodesmium.
She is Director of the Plant Phenomics Research Facility, University of Essex and Director of Impact, Research Group Convenor (Plant Productivity).
Dr Rosalind Bark, Lecturer in Ecological Economics, School of Environmental Sciences, UEA
Dr Rosalind Bark received her PhD in Arid Lands Resource Sciences and Agricultural and Resource Economics, from the University of Arizona, USA and has since worked as a research scientist in Australia, and as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Leeds. She is currently a lecturer in Ecological Economics in the School of Environmental Sciences teaching Natural Resources and Environmental Economics. She is a member of the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE) and the 3S (Science, Society & Sustainability) Research Group.
Rosalind’s broad research interests focus thematically on water resources management in times of change and integrating ecosystem services (including cultural ecosystem services) in decision-making. This has involved using non-market methods to monetarily value urban green space, instream flows and ecosystem services in water scarce environments, market-based instruments design as part of basin scale water resources management reform and restoration, as well as several studies on sustainable agriculture.
Dr Vittoria Danino, Head of the Anglian Centre for Water Studies at Anglian Water Services
Vittoria is the Head of the Anglian Centre for Water Studies – a strategic collaboration between Anglian Water and the University of East Anglia. The aim of the Centre is to build mutually beneficial relationships which drive new knowledge and research to benefit the wider water sector. To achieve this she brings together people from academia, businesses, government and non-governmental organisations to address areas of common interest. Previously, Vittoria worked for seven years at the interface of research and wider society as Relationships Manager within the UEA research and enterprise service.
These roles build on a love of science and a desire to see new knowledge, innovation and technology used in business and wider society. Vittoria’s research background is in molecular microbiology, looking at microbial interactions with plants and animals on industry and government funded projects