Unearthing the impacts of invasive plants on soil microbial communities


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We have designed our application systems to identify candidates who are likely to be successful in research regardless of what opportunities may have been available to them prior to their application.

Various support and guidance on applying for an ACCE DTP studentship, including how to apply; what we’re looking for (including our assessment rubric); details of financial support, training, and placement opportunities available; and details of our recruitment process, can be found at https://accedtp.ac.uk, in the ‘prospective applicants’ tab.

Project overview


The mechanisms by which invasive plants exert impacts on soil microbial communities are not fully understood, yet there are at least four potential mechanisms at play that will be the focus of this PhD. First, the plant invader may not associate with mutualistic soil microbes (e.g. arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi) that benefit native plants, resulting in their loss or reduced abundance. Second, the invader may differ strongly from native plants in the composition of compounds in root exudates that form the substrate for microbial metabolism and growth. Third, invasive plants can release exudate chemicals which interfere with and suppress microbial growth. Fourth, pathogenic microbes can accumulate in the soil that negatively affect native plants. Soil community changes through any mechanism might affect establishment and growth of native plants in soils previously occupied by invasive plants, hampering efforts to restore vegetation after invader removal. Understanding how invasions alter soil communities will provide a basis for remediating soils post-invasion.


This exciting PhD project will use a set of UK invasive plants to assess which mechanisms underpin soil microbial community changes after invasion, and how these feed back to affect native plant growth and establishment. Specifically, the PhD project will:

  1. Characterise bacterial, fungal and viral microbiomes of plant roots in uninvaded and invaded soils;
  2. Quantify differences in root exudate composition between invasive and native plants, identifying putative compounds responsible for microbial community shifts;
  3. Explore whether microbial community shifts and invasive plant root exudates act in concert to affect native plant growth in invaded soils

Novelty and Timeliness:

The student will use controlled experiments and analyses to explore these mechanisms, with training in experimental design, handling of plants and microbes, bioassay methods, root exudate collection, as well as develop their skills in data analysis and scientific writing.

Essential and desirable criteria


  • Data processing and statistical analysis skills (preferably in R)
  • Basic lab skills: pipetting, preparation of DNA extractions, working with reagents
  • Scientific writing skills
  • Working with plants and/or soils


  • Knowledge of/skills in bioinformatics, and/or knowledge of coding/programming (R/Python)
  • Knowledge of invasion ecology, and/or the ecology of plant-soil interactions
  • Experience of setting up and maintaining plant growth experiments


How to apply

Notes and details of how to apply are available here: https://accedtp.ac.uk/phd-opportunities/

All applicants to ACCE must complete the ACCE personal statement proforma. This is instead of a personal/supporting statement or cover letter. The proforma is designed to standardise this part of the application to minimise the difference between those who are given support and those who are not. Candidates should also submit a CV and the contact details of 2 referees.

Part-time study options

All ACCE PhDs are available as part time or full time, with part time being a minimum of 50% of full time. Please discuss potential part time arrangements with the primary supervisor before applying to the programme.

Project CASE status

This project is not a CASE project. While individual applicant quality is our overriding criterion for selection, the ACCE DTP has a commitment for 40% of all studentships to be CASE funded - as such, CASE projects may be favoured in shortlisting applicants when candidates are otherwise deemed to be equal or a consensus on student quality cannot be reached. This will only be done as a last resort for separating candidates.


Open to students worldwide

Funding information

Funded studentship

NERC ACCE DTP programme starts from October 2024.
UKRI provide the following funding for 3.5 years:

  • Stipend (2023/24 UKRI rate £18,622)
  • Tuition Fees at UK fee rate (2023/24 rate £4,712)
  • Research support and training grant (RTSG)

Note - UKRI funding only covers UK (Home) fees. The DTP partners have various schemes which allow international students to join the DTP but only be required to pay home fees. Home fees are already covered in the UKRI funding, meaning that successful international candidates do not need to find any additional funding for fees.



1.Yu H, He Y, Zhang W, Chen L, Zhang J, Zhang Z, Dawson W, Ding J. 2022. Greater chemical signaling in root exudates enhances soil mutualistic associations in invasive plants compared to natives. New Phytologist 236: 1140-1153.

2.Meaden S, Biswas A, Arkhipova K, Morales SE, Dutilh BE, Westra ER, Fineran PC. 2022. High viral abundance and low diversity are associated with increased CRISPR-Cas prevalence across microbial ecosystems. Current Biology 32: 220-227.

3.Sanchez-Mahecha O, Klink S, Heinen R, Rothballer M, Zytynska S. 2022. Impaired microbial N-acyl homoserine lactone signalling increases plant resistance to aphids across variable abiotic and biotic environments. Plant, Cell & Environment 45: 3052-3069.

4.Pattison Z, Vallejo-Marin M, Willby N. 2019. Riverbanks as battlegrounds: why does the abundance of native and invasive plants vary? Ecosystems 22: 578-286.