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Postgraduate research project

Deciphering the mechanistic drivers of plant-microbe feedback

Fully funded (UK and international)
Type of degree
Doctor of Philosophy
Entry requirements
2:1 honours degree View full entry requirements
Faculty graduate school
Faculty of Environmental and Life Sciences
Closing date

About the project

Microbial relationships with plants are vital for healthy plant functioning and plants can influence microbiomes through exudation. However, we understand little about how microbiomes form on plant roots and how plants can directly influence microbial recruitment. In this project, you will explore how exudates can shape microbial relationships and functions with plants and in soil. You will also study how those exudates can mediate microbe-microbe interactions. You will have the opportunity to work with plants, soil, and microbes. You will gain experience working in the laboratory and with large datasets (microbiome, metabolomics, and whole genome sequencing).

The soil microbial pool is an untapped reservoir of genetic diversity. In soil, plants form relationships with microbial consortia that aid in nutrient acquisition, plant defence, and general healthy functioning of the plant. These relationships are mediated by the release of carbon, in the form of exudates, from plant roots. The feedback between plants and microbes can have significant implications for ecosystem functions and the ability of plants to rapidly adapt to changing conditions. Importantly, changing the quantity and composition of exudates can alter the resources available to microorganisms which shapes microbe-microbe interactions.

In this project, we will be asking basic questions and applied questions: 

1. How do exudates enrich for individual microorganisms and whole consortia (microbiomes) from a taxonomic and functional perspective, and how does that impact soil functions (e.g. decomposition)?

2. How do exudates shape microbe-microbe interactions?

3. How do host-species origin, priority effects, and competition impact root microbial assembly?

Overall, this project seeks to identify the basic ecological rules that govern microbial colonisation on plant roots, and by extension, how we can use these relationships to improve plant fitness to stress.

You will have the opportunity to work with plants, microbes, and soil. Most of the work is expected to be in the laboratory but there will be potential to do fieldwork or carry out field trials. 

You will learn several complementary skills, including bench microbiology, working with large datasets (i.e. microbiome and metabolomics data), whole genome sequencing, working with plants with an emphasis on roots, working with root exudates, and the potential to use cutting-edge technique like microfluidics and single-cell sequencing. 

There will be opportunities to develop your own research ideas to pursue during your PhD as you grow as a scientist.

All training will be provided.

This project will be hosted within the School of Biological Sciences (SoBS) at the University of Southampton. The University of Southampton is a research-intensive university and a founding member of the Russell Group.