Skip to content

Soil microbes to mitigate climate change

Human populations are expected to increase by 50% to 9 billion by 2050 as climate change continues. The global challenge is to manage terrestrial ecosystems sustainably whilst mitigating climate change. One option is to reverse global soil organic carbon (SOC) losses and increase soil carbon stocks by 0.4% per year (i.e. the ‘4 per mille’ target launched at COP21, 2015). This global initiative has the potential to deliver significant climate change mitigation.

The search for land management strategies to ‘lock up’ SOC is currently severely hampered by poor understanding of how SOC is stabilised. Recent evidence shows that plant inputs into soils are not the primary constituents of stabilised SOC, but that carbon compounds produced by microbes form the majority (50-80%) of soil organic matter. Both abiotic and biotic pathways transform organic carbon inputs into stable SOC, but the mechanisms are highly uncertain (Liang et al 2017).

In this PhD the student will research the potential to manage soil microbial communities to sequester atmospheric carbon in agricultural soils. A specific focus will be on improving understanding of the mineral-biological processes that govern carbon persistence in soils using a combination of laboratory and field experiments. The student will be supported by an experienced supervisory team and gain access to wider support from the £1.9M NERC “Locked Up” consortium led by Whitaker. The student will have access to ‘state-of-the-art’ equipment and instruments (scanning spectroscopy, biogeochemical, isotopic) whilst being trained with specific and transferable skills. There will also be opportunities to work closely with Shell’s Nature Based Solutions programme leader (Houston, USA) to examine the potential for scaling and implementing soil and land-based solutions for climate mitigation; and for a research visit to Crops for the Future Malaysia to sample degraded palm oil soils for experimentation.

UK students with BSc/ Masters degrees (2.1 or above) in disciplines including Environmental science, Biology, Geography, Natural Sciences or similar.

For further information about the studentship please email Jeanette Whitaker at