Ecosystems

We are interested in tackling general questions about microbial ecology, so the research is not  wedded to a single ecosystem, and includes aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

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Water-filled tree holes

Rainwater can accumulate in the buttressing of beech trees to create semi-permanent water bodies. We have used water-filled tree holes extensively as a model system  for understanding general principles of microbial ecology and evolution. The main benefits of using rainpool communities is that they are tractable ecosystems, with thousands of nearby, replicate communities. They also offer an excellent simple model for understanding decomposition in nature, since the food web relies almost exclusively on inputs from a single energy source: beech leaves. The resource base is therefore simple to replicate in the lab, making it possible to construct realistic ecosystems in the laboratory that can be easily controlled and manipulated.

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Soil

Soil is one of the most diverse and important microbial habitats: soil microbes sustain crops and degrade pollutants in landfills. The genetic and metabolic diversity of soil microbes is phenomenal, far exceeding what is found in other natural habitats. In addition, soil environments are extremely heterogeneous. Soil is the opposite of of the treehole system we study: intractable, complex, and difficult to manipulate. We are therefore using soil systems as a test-bed for extending ideas from tree holes. Current funded projects include research investigating the spatial structure of soil communities and linkages between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in soil. The soil research is in collaboration with Rob Griffiths and Jason Tylianakis and others.

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Freshwater

We are initiating research using (relatively) large bodies of freshwater. We have scaled up our microcosm system to place 96 giant aquatic microcosms (ponds) at Silwood Park Campus. Initially these will be used simply to track community development to look at succession in microbial communities. We have also been recently been awarded funding to investigate how geothermally warmed streams across the Arctic influence microbial community structure and function.  All of this research is in collaboration with Guy Woodward and Alex Dumbrell and others.