Winner of the 2015 MSc BSSS Dissertation Prize

Congratulations to Jumpei Fukumasu for winning the 2015 BSSS MSc Dissertation Award for his dissertation on ‘Is there a stronger relationship between N-acquiring extracellular enzyme activity and nitrogen mineralization in disaggregated soils than in aggregated soils?’, supervised by Dr Liz Shaw (presenting the award).

Excellent work, Jumpei!  Competition this year was particularly tough, with many excellent nominations from students who achieved a distinction in their dissertation module.  Well done to all our students for their fantastic research.  We wish all of them the best of luck with their future career and thank them for their hard work and dedicated whilst at Reading.


SRC Photo Competition Winners 2015!

Congratulations to the winners of the annual Soil Research Centre Photo Competition! We had a fantastic range of entries this year, which you can view at the album here.

First Prize

Jackie Stroud: Earthworm in action!  Earthworm feeding at night on surface organic matter (crop residues)

First Prize - Jackie Stroud

First Prize – Jackie Stroud

Second Prize

Ian Davenport: In arid and semi-arid regions, cyanobacteria use light and water to grow filaments that bind soil particles together, forming a crust that helps to prevent erosion.  Photo from Diamantina, Australia.

Ian Davenport, Second Prize

Ian Davenport, Second Prize

Highly Commended

Rob Jackson: Banana plantation: Reading, Medellin and UMass Dartmouth student team sampling soil along a transect in a Colombian banana plantation to discover novel biocontrol bacteria

Rob Jackson, Highly Commended

Rob Jackson, Highly Commended

Erika Degani: Sampling earthworms at UoR Sonning Farm as part of a PhD project assessing the relationships between crop rotations, biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services

Erika Degani, Highly Commended

Erika Degani, Highly Commended

Well done to all!

Sarah Duddigan talks citizen science and the Tea Bag Index on TV

Sarah Duddigan poses with tea bags-smThis week University of Reading and Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) PhD student Sarah Duddigan has been filmed for an Austrian children’s science TV programme, talking about her contribution to a decomposition rate citizen science project, known as the Tea Bag Index – UK.

The Tea Bag Index is a novel method to measure decomposition rate in soil. Decomposition (the breakdown of organic material into its smaller constituents) is an important process for the release of nutrients into soil for plants to use. Therefore gaining a better understanding of decomposition in soil will be of great value to gardeners in the UK. The method is simple, UK participants are recruited through the RHS and posted some tea bags to bury in their garden. After three months they dig them up and send them back, along with a soil sample.

Decomposition of organic matter (i.e. dead plant and animal remains) in soils is an important process in any ecosystem.

Decomposer microorganisms feed on the organic matter and break it down into its simplest components. As organic matter is decomposed, water, carbon dioxide and nutrients are released. Meaning that, any excess nutrients are released and are available for plants to use to grow.

Maintaining a healthy and vibrant garden is the aspiration of most gardeners and healthy fertile soil is a key component of this. Therefore, a better understanding of decomposition rates in garden soils will be of great value to gardeners across the UK.

While having an active microbial population decomposing organic matter is important for soil health, they are not without their problems. While organic matter is decomposing, it releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. A fast decay leads to more CO2 in the atmosphere and slow decay could lead to a greater proportion of carbon remaining in the soil. It is estimated that soils store a gigantic 2,300 billion tons of carbon worldwide; triple the amount than all the worlds plants. Therefore in order to gain a better understanding of global CO2 emissions from soils it is vital to know more about the rate of decomposition.

The data from the UK therefore can also be combined with data being collected across Europe (or across the world in fact) in order to gain a better understanding on the role of decomposition in global carbon emissions and the contribution to climate change.

This seems to be a contradiction, on the one hand decomposition is good for plant health, but on the other has the potential to contribute to climate change. This is why projects such as this, which aim to gain a better understanding of decomposition rates in soil, are so important.

For more information, and updates on the progress of the project, see the links below:





Winner of the 2015 BSc BSSS Dissertation Prize

BSSSdissprizeCongratulations to Rosie Everett, winner of the 2015 BSc BSSS Dissertation Prize for her project on ‘Reconstructing Late Würm Late-Glacial and Early Holocene environmental changes in the Corsican uplands and evaluating the response of human groups to climate change and vegetation succession’ supervised by Dr Nick Branch (presenting the award).


Rosie’s project used the sedimentary records from Lake Creno, Corsica as an archive for past environmental conditions.  She analysed the pollen stored in the sediment to reconstruct past conditions to see if there was a relationship between past climate during ate Wurm Late Glacial and Early Holocene period and human settlement on Corsica.


She has been putting her paleoecological skills to practice as a Forensic Researcher Intern at the James Hutton Institute, looking at rates of recovery of diatoms, taken from lake samples from pig liver tissues, as an analogue from human drowning cases.  Rosie graduated this summer with a BA in Archaelogy, and is currently working with a forensics company, assisting with field work.  Her ambition is to build on this experience and skills base to pursue post-graduate study in ecology.


We’re extremely proud of Rosie and all our students’ fantastic achievements this year.  Competition for the prize this year was tough with many strong entries.  We wish everyone from the Class of 2015 the best of luck with their future endeavours.

Reading academics present soil science research to Sainsbury’s Farming Scholars

Professor Chris Collins and Dr Tom Sizmur gave presentations to a workshop on Soil Health and Management at Imperial College. The event marked the launch of the Inaugural Sainsbury’s Farming Scholars programme.

The Farming Scholars are representatives of growers that supply Sainsbury’s and are motivated to apply the latest scientific evidence to improving the sustainability of their operations and manage their soils more effectively.

Chris Collins introduced the current programme of soil science research recently funded by NERC and BBSRC, including the STARS (Soils Training And Research Studentships)  Centre for Doctoral Training and the ‘Soil & Rhizosphere Interactions for Sustainable Agri-ecosystems’ (SARISA) programme. Chris introduced his role in co-ordinating these activities across the country along with his administrative, and communications team based at The University of Reading

Tom Sizmur introduced some preliminary data from a suite of experiments at Rothamsted Research that he worked on as a postdoctoral researcher. The experiments reveal that the addition of organic matter to soils can rapidly increase earthworm number and biomass in soils. The earthworms break-up, incorporate and mix the organic materials into the soil. This is essentially a form of ‘biological cultivation’ which improves the structure of the soil, via the formation of aggregates and connected pore networks. He revealed that the structure of the soil was modified by the presence of earthworm burrows which makes it easier for plant roots to penetrate and for water to infiltrate. The larger, deeper root network that resulted from ‘biological cultivation’ increased the yield of cereal crops.


Farm advice on benefits of organic matter for soil structure and crop yield from Tom Sizmur

On Tuesday 10th February Dr. Tom Sizmur met with growers in Essex and Hertfordshire at Manuden Village Community Centre to talk about how soil structure and crop yield can be improved by adding organic matter to soils and boosting earthworm populations.

Tom presented results from a suite of field experiments designed to demonstrate that cereal crop yield could be improved by adding organic matter to soils because the organic matter acts as a food source for earthworms.  Research was carried out in collaboration with Rothamsted Research.  The earthworms reduce the strength of the soil and provide a medium that enables plant roots to establish faster.


This presentation was part of an ongoing contribution to a suite of workshops delivered by the Soil and Water Management Centre in partnership with Natural England’s Catchment Sensitive Farming Programme. The workshop was introduced by Sarah Asberry, the Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer for the Mimshall Brook, Upper Roding and Upper Lee & Stort catchments. Other topics covered included soil biology and health by Professor Karl Ritz of Nottingham University, and cover crops from agronomist Nick Green of T Denne & Sons.

Winner of the 2014 MSc BSSS Dissertation Prize

Congratulations to Chris Moorin, winner of the 2014 British Society of Soil Science MSc Dissertation Prize!

Chris’ dissertation was on ‘the impact of different organic amendments on potentially toxic element (PTE) bioavailability in soils and the possible evolutionary adaptation of Common Bentgrass (Agrostis capillaris L.) to high PTE concentrations’, supervised by Dr Denise Lambkin. The Award was presented at the 2014 Winter Graduation ceremony by Dr Joanna Clark.

Excellent work, Chris!  Very well done to all our students for their excellent dissertation projects.

Graduation Dec 2014 (8) Chris Moorin-001

NERC funded PhDs Studentships Available – Apply by 2nd February 2015


Applications are open for the 2015 NERC SCENARIO Doctoral Training Programme PhD studentships, led by University of Reading.

Projects available on soil and soil-related research are:

Applications close 2nd February 2015.  For more information on projects and how to apply, please contact the lead supervisor of the project you are interested in.

2014 Soil Photo Competition Winners

We are pleased to announce the winners of 2014 Photo Competition.

Standard of entries was very high this year.  Thank you to all who took part.

Happy World Soils Day!


First Prize: Oliver Crowley, PhD Student

Sampling for bulk density in the field where soils under three intensities of management were subjected to a summer drought event


Second Prize: Leanne Roche, PhD Student

This picture shows the typical soil type used for spring malting barley in the south east of Ireland. Limited nitrogen is allowed under the nitrates directive and it’s questionable whether it is enough to produce good yields with good quality grain.


Highly Commended: Mike Bell, PhD Student

Burying litter bags on Dartmoor as part of an experiment looking at the climate dependency of plant litter decomposition in blanket peat. There is concern that climate change could disrupt the small imbalance between net primary productivity and decomposition which has resulted in these systems slowly accumulating large stores of carbon over the last few millennia.


Highly Commended: Josh Giulianotti, MSc Student

The photo was taken during the field course trip to Devon Great Consols in Dartmoor National Park.
The photo shows the former arsenic and copper mine processing area, taken from the mine tailings.  Note the slow succession of plant growth due to extremely high soil arsenic concentrations.


Commended: Oliver Crowley, PhD Student

Soils from different intensity of land use were subjected to climate change scenarios for the UK in order to investigate functional stability to stress.


Commended: Dr Rob Jackson, Associate Professor

Don’t fall in: Sampling extremophiles from soil and water in an Icelandic geothermal pool.