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ENV East Doctoral Training Partnership


Applications to the EnvEast Doctoral Training Partnership are now closed.

Below you can browse some of the PhD projects we have previously funded; if you would like to be informed when applications open, or if you have any questions about EnvEast and our application process, please email us.

Projects previously funded by EnvEast


Feedback/Feedforward interactions between plant root exudates and rhizosphere communities under water stress (WHITBY_EBS15EE)

Project description

The successful candidate will work at the University of Essex and in collaboration with researchers at Rothamsted Research and the CASE partner ADC BioScientific Ltd to investigate the interactions between plant root exudates and rhizosphere microbial communities under plant water stress conditions.

Drought stress is the single most important environmental factor influencing global food production. Drought affects interactions and feedbacks between plants and soil microbiota, resulting in changes in net primary production and soil nutrient (C/N/P) cycling.  Healthy plant roots naturally pass large amounts of carbon as exudates into the soil (predominantly in the form of soluble organic acids, carbohydrates and amino acids) and so any change in plant carbohydrate status will impact on root exudate production. Whilst root exudation represents a significant carbon cost to plants, it also directly influences the soil microbial communities in the rhizosphere.

Currently, little is known about the feedback-feed forward mechanisms between rhizosphere communities and the plant under drought stress conditions. It is well established that soil bacterial and fungal communities play central roles in the cycling of C, N and P via symbiotic relationships with plant roots, providing host plants with increased N and P, protection against pathogens and improved water relations in return for plant-derived photosynthates (C). The proposed project will combine plant physiological, chemical analytical and molecular microbial techniques to analyse plant-microbe symbioses by characterizing root exudate production in relation to diversity, activity and abundance of rhizosphere communities. A key project output is that it will determine whether specific functional rhizosphere microorganisms facilitate a selective competitive advantage to the plant physiology. In addition the impact of decreasing water availability on nutrient cycling will be assessed.

Aims of the project:

  1. Quantify the impact of imposing drought stress on C3 and C4 plant photosynthesis and water use efficiency.
  2. Quantify how root exudate chemistry (composition and concentration) changes in relation to plant photosynthetic carbon assimilation under conditions of plant water stress.
  3. Quantify changes in rhizosphere community structure, abundance and activity in relation to soil structure and total organic carbon and nitrogen.
  4. Quantify changes in rhizosphere community structure, abundance and activity under plant water stress conditions in relation to root exudate production and total organic carbon and nitrogen.
  5. Determine how changes in root exudate production (concentration and composition) influence rhizosphere community (activity and structure) in relation to plant physiology, nutrient cycling and soil respiration rates.

As part of this project the student will gain skills and experience in plant physiology, molecular microbiology and soil hydraulic techniques. (S)he will also have the opportunity to work with the industrial CASE partner ADC BioScientific Ltd., who are one of the UK's leading manufacturers in above- and below-ground infrared gas analysis techniques, for measuring gas (CO2 and H20) fluxes.

The industrial collaboration on this CASE studentship provides the candidate with a unique opportunity to be trained and work alongside the manufacturers of scientific equipment and also be involved in testing and modifying new commercial instrumentation. The successful student will also have access to field sites and research expertise with the project collaborators at Rothamsted Research station. The studentship will thus provide the successful candidate with key transferable skills in molecular microbiology, plant physiology and field sampling techniques.

Required criteria:

A good Honours degree or equivalent, in a relevant subject area (e.g. in Microbiology, Biological Sciences, Plant Sciences, Environmental Sciences, or a related discipline) and preferably some field experience.

The candidate will have strong organisational skills, with good oral and written communication skills with an interest in molecular microbial ecology.  The candidate will be self motivated and a team player.

Shortlisted applicants will be invited to an interview day on either Thursday 12 or Friday 13 February 2015.

For scientific enquiries please contact: Dr Corinne Whitby, or Dr Tracy Lawson.


This project has been shortlisted for funding from the EnvEast NERC Doctoral Training Partnership. Successful candidates who meet RCUK's eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship. In most cases, UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award.

The stipend for 2014/15 was £13,863 p.a.



Dr Tracy Lawson, School of Biological Sciences, University of Essex

Dr Steve Bonnage, ADC BioScientific Ltd (CASE Partner)

Dr Richard Whalley, Rothamsted Research

Dr Alex Dumbrell, School of Biological Sciences, University of Essex

  • Start date September 2015
  • Programme PhD
  • Mode of Study Full-time
  • Studentship Length 3.5 years