Plant-microbial interactive effects on soil carbon in relation to soil structure


Maintaining healthy soils is vital for sustaining terrestrial life on earth.  The functioning of soil is to a large degree defined by its structure.  Soil structure affects aeration, water movement, erosion, plant root growth, microbial activity and soil carbon storage.  Soil structure itself is not static, but is affected by the activity of plant roots and microbes and their effect on carbon storage.  To date, there is no integral concept describing the interactions between soil structure, plants, microbes, carbon storage and nutrient cycling.  The aim of the proposed research here is to develop a framework of how soil structure interacts with plant growth and microbial activity, and in particular how these interactions affect soil carbon storage and nutrient cycling.


Associate Professor Feike Dijkstra

Research Location

School of Life and Environmental Sciences

Program Type



Soil structure is determined by the binding and clumping of individual soil particles to form aggregates.  Soil organic matter binds with clay forming stable complexes, while plant roots and microbes can improve soil aggregation by producing polysaccharides that act as cementing agents between particles.  Carbon inside aggregates is less vulnerable to microbial decomposition (i.e., more stable) than carbon that is not associated with aggregates.  While plants and microbes can improve soil carbon stabilization through formation of aggregates, plant root-microbial interactions can also enhance soil organic matter decomposition.  Recent studies suggest that root exudates can stimulate microbial soil organic matter decomposition.  However, it is unclear how the stimulation of soil organic matter decomposition by plant-microbial interactions is affected by soil structure.  Moreover, it is unknown how plant-microbial interactions affect the relative rates of carbon loss and gain through decomposition and stabilization of soil organic matter via aggregate formation.  In this project there will be opportunity to:

  • Conduct glasshouse and/or soil laboratory experiments to investigate the role of soil structure for plant-microbial effects on soil organic matter decomposition using 13C and possibly 15N tracer techniques.
  • Use X-ray microtomography imaging to investigate plant-root microbial interactive effects on soil structure.
  • Incorporate results into mechanistic and spatio-temporal dynamic models.

Additional Information

We are looking for a student who has a background in soil science, agronomy or ecology.
A strong interest in glasshouse work, laboratory work and/or modeling would be desirable.
In addition to the academic requirements set out in the Science Postgraduate Handbook, you may be required to satisfy a number of inherent requirements to complete this degree. Example of inherent requirement may include:

  • Confidential disclosure and registration of a disability that may hinder your performance in your degree;
  • Confidential disclosure of a pre-existing or current medical condition that may hinder your performance in your degree (e.g. heart disease, pace-maker, significant immune suppression, diabetes, vertigo, etc.);
  • Ability to perform independently and/or with minimal supervision;
  • Ability to undertake certain physical tasks (e.g. heavy lifting);
  • Ability to undertake observatory, sensory and communication tasks;
  • Ability to spend time at remote sites (e.g. One Tree Island, Narrabri and Camden);
  • Ability to work in confined spaces or at heights;
  • Ability to operate heavy machinery (e.g. farming equipment);
  • Hold or acquire an Australian driver’s licence;
  • Hold a current scuba diving license;
  • Hold a current Working with Children Check;
  • Meet initial and ongoing immunisation requirements (e.g. Q-Fever, Vaccinia virus, Hepatitis, etc.)
You must consult with your nominated supervisor regarding any identified inherent requirements before completing your application.

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carbon, decomposition, Environment, plant-microbe interactions, soil

Opportunity ID

The opportunity ID for this research opportunity is: 1245

Other opportunities with Associate Professor Feike Dijkstra