News

£1.8m project to uncover the hidden talents of urban soils

  • Date

    Thu 13 Dec 18

urban soil

Urban soil and its importance to the health of both our environment and society will be comprehensively analysed as never before in a major £1.8m research project led by the University of Essex.

Urban soil and its importance to the health of both our environment and society will be comprehensively analysed as never before in a major research project led by the University of Essex.

Despite urban soils being present in most parts of the UK, less is known about its biodiversity and its role in supporting ecosystem services than some of the most remote areas in the world.

The £1.8 million project is one of 14 projects announced today as part of the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) £24 million new tranche of highlight topics, which all focus on the most pressing research and societal issues in the environmental sciences.

Leading the project is Dr Alex Dumbrell, a molecular soil ecologist from our School of Biological Sciences, who will be working alongside colleagues at Essex as well as scientists at Cranfield and Abertay universities.

The project will focus on a large-scale and major urbanisation area that exists across the East of England between London and Colchester, which can offer a window into the future of other urban areas within the UK.

Dr Alex Dumbrell
"Our project will comprehensively examine the links between the biological, physical and chemical structure of urban soil, the ecosystem processes and functions this supports and the delivery of four key ecosystem services."
Dr Alex Dumbrell molecular soil ecologist

Soil samples will be taken from a wide range of urban contexts including current industrial areas, areas built upon an industrial legacy, residential areas, green spaces and all possible permutations of mixtures of these areas.

Dr Dumbrell explained: “Soil provides critical ecosystem services that underpin human society and wellbeing – from nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration, to waste detoxification and supporting the productivity of terrestrial ecosystems.

“Delivery of these ecosystem services depends on the biodiversity contained within the soil. Yet, we know relatively little about urban soil biodiversity and how the physical and chemical structure of these environments supports it, and in turn how urban soil biodiversity sustains the flow of these key ecosystem services."

In this unique study, scientists will use the world-leading facilities in DNA sequencing technologies at Essex to profile the biodiversity of urban soils, examining everything from microbes to earth worms. This will be combined with quantifying how nitrogen and carbon are cycled through urban soils, how harmful pollutants and toxicants are remediated in urban soils, and how these soils contribute to supporting life above ground.

“Supporting all of this will be a comprehensive analysis of the physical and chemical structure of the soil, and experimental manipulations that examine how resilient urban soils are to change,” added Dr Dumbrell. “Resulting data will be combined into predictive models that allow us to forecast how changes to the urban environment will influence soil biodiversity and ecosystem service delivery, providing city planners and urban developers with the tools they require for future projects.

“Our project will comprehensively examine the links between the biological, physical and chemical structure of urban soil, the ecosystem processes and functions this supports and the delivery of four key ecosystem services (nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, waste detoxification, and primary productivity), across a major urbanisation gradient reflective of the future of the UK landscape.”

NERC Associate Director of Research Ned Garnett said: “The highlight topics programme allows us to receive ideas from both the research community and users of environmental science to ensure that we are providing funding where it is most needed. The provision of top quality environmental research has never been more essential as we continue to tackle some of the greatest environmental challenges of our time.”