After graduating with an MSci in Biological Sciences from the University of Aberdeen in summer 2019, I joined the research group led by Prof. Matthias Rillig at the Free University of Berlin for a Research Traineeship. Although I had taken quite a few plant and soil courses at university, joining the lab in Berlin allowed me to delve more into the underground world and to learn more about one of the most prevalent symbioses on Earth – that formed between most plants (up to 72% of all land species) and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF). In this symbiosis, AMF colonise plant roots from which they acquire their carbon requirements and in return, they provide their plant host with soil nutrients. Finally, I knew what area of biology I would most like to focus on! Following the completion of this Traineeship, I moved to the University of Leeds in January 2020 to work as a Research Technician on a project titled “Friend or foe; who wins in the competition for plant resources?” led by Prof. Urwin and Prof. Katie Field. Broadly, the project aims to better understand the tripartite interaction of plants, plant-parasitic nematodes, and AMF. The more I worked on this project the more questions I had, which led me to apply for this PhD!
Through my previous research, we found that the presence of co-occurring, competing symbionts such as plant-parasitic nematodes can disrupt the carbon-for-nutrient exchange between plants and AMF in one-on-one interactions. However, in nature, AMF form underground networks that link neighbouring plants together and mediate communication and resource distribution across all partners. My PhD project aims to expand on our previous work by incorporating these mycorrhizal fungal networks in our experimental design. I will track resource exchange across a networked system to find out how an AMF network modulates plant symbioses with competing root symbionts (i.e., plant-parasitic nematodes and AMF). I also aim to characterize the role of fungal networks in plant-plant signalling and plant defence responses in these interactions. Through this research, I hope to shed new light on the true complexity of plant-AMF relationships and demonstrate the potential power of mycorrhizal networks in plant-soil interactions. My project is supervised by Prof. Katie Field (University of Sheffield), Prof. Urwin (University of Leeds) and Prof. Tim Daniell (University of Sheffield). I am based at the University of Sheffield but work in close collaboration with the Plant Nematology lab at the University of Leeds.