Bioscience for sustainable agriculture and food

Category: Standard Studentships

Understanding fundamental plant-soil interactions for sustainable agriculture

Project No. 2373


Primary Supervisor

Dr Katherine Williams – University of Portsmouth


Prof Tiina Roose – University of Southampton

Dr Frank Schubert – University of Portsmouth


Sustainable and effective food production is a major global challenge.

Changing climates, damaged soils, and rapidly declining fertiliser supplies are already causing food price hikes and scarcity. Conflicts disrupting supply chains are highlighting the overreliance on scarce resources such as phosphorus fertiliser, which despite contributing to 50% of the world’s food supply, may run out entirely in less than 100 years.

Optimising fertiliser use and making agricultural practices more sustainable requires an in-depth understanding of how plants, soils, and the rest of the environment interact. This includes aspects from soil structure and composition, microbial interactions, water and nutrient fluxes, and crop phenotypes. Previous work from this research group combines lab-scale experiments using 3D imaging, time-resolved chemical monitoring, and mathematical modelling to understand plant-soil interactions at a fundamental level.

For this interdisciplinary project, the student would have the option of taking a more experimental or a more mathematical modelling approach to understanding plant-soil interactions. They will build on experimental and modelling methods previously developed by the group to build towards real-world applications. They will use a combination of techniques, including 3D X-ray imaging (X-ray CT), plant growth assays, chemical sampling, and mathematical modelling (with a focus dependent on the background of the student) to study plants and their interactions with soil, soil microbes, fertilisation, and the environment.

This project would suit a student with a background in biology, engineering, or maths, with an interest in carrying out fundamental science with impact. Work may include collaboration with researchers at the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory where a brand new plant and soil specific beamline is being built, offering unique opportunities to study live roots in 3D and high-resolution to uncover new structure-function relationships.