Methane (CH4) is an important greenhouse gas that is ~25 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping the Sun's energy.  There is therefore considerable interest in the processes involved in CH4 production, principally in waterlogged soils in wetlands, and the processes that lead to both its emission to the atmosphere and removal from the atmosphere.  Methane cycling is intrinsically linked to microbial processes.  It is generally thought that CH4 is removed from the atmosphere via 2 main processes: 1) through reactions with tropospheric OH, and 2) by oxidation by microbes (methanotrophs) in free-draining soils.  On-going work has identified a further novel yet important potentially important mechanism for removing CH4 from soil: the stems of upland trees.  Recent research by this group suggests that the surfaces of trees maybe as important at removing methane from the atmosphere as soils.  We now need to quantify just how much methane trees can remove from the atmosphere while developing an understanding of the environmental controls on uptake and the microbial processes responsible. In this project, the student will 1) make measurements of methane exchange and quantify variation in microbial processes over an annual cycle for a range of temperate upland tree species in a UK forest; 2) Identify the microbial communities responsible  3) examine their response to a range of environmental parameters   via a combination of mesocosm studies (which will allow for close control of tree saplings for process studies (Pangala et al 2014)) and analysis of processes spanning a range of natural spatial environmental gradients across Europe (e.g. temperature, precipitation, pollution deposition). In doing so the student will gain a thorough understanding of the size of the temperate forest tree methane sink while providing the first insights into processes responsible. 

Former PhD student making trace gas exchange measurements from trees at the OU mesocosm facility.(Pangala et al 2013)


The student will:

  1. Make measurements at the OU’s tree mesocosm array for highly controlled hydrological experiments on tree saplings;
  2. make methane flux measurements from these trees and from the local forests using laser-based field-portable analysers across an annual cycle;
  3. study microbial methane uptake within tree tissues over seasonal time scales;
  4. examine processes across a selection of environmental gradients.

Training and Skills

Students will be given training in biogeochemical techniques (e.g. quantum cascade laser spectroscopy) for the analysis of methane in air and also for the analysis of methane consumed within plant tissues. In addition, the student will gain training in in process level microbiology and microbial ecology. The Ecosystems and Geobiology Laboratory has comprehensive laboratory facilities for such analyses. The student will also gain training in field research and in the design of field campaigns and manipulation experiments. Use of the OU’s tree mesocosm facility allows training in closely controlled manipulation experiments so as to minimise confounding factors that may be encountered in field studies.

CENTA students will be provided with 45 days training from CENTA through their PhD which includes a 5-day residential and a 10-day work placement. In the first year, students will undertake training in general environmental science, research methods and core skills as a single cohort. Training in years 2 and 3 will progress from core skills to masterclasses specific to the project and overall scientific theme. 


Year 1: Perform a literature review, establish the monitoring sites and establish the mesocosm facility with new saplings.

Year 2: Perform the bulk of the measurements of methane exchange while examining the microbial ecology of tree tissues. Submit manuscript 1 on mesocosm findings. Present at a national conference.

Year 3: Finalise data collection from environmental gradients, submit manuscripts 2 and 3 on the field site and on microbial processes respectively and complete thesis, present at an international conference.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

CEH offer expertise in plant-soil interactions.

Further Details

Students should have a strong background in, and enthusiasm for environmental science, geography or environmental biology. The student will join a well-established team researching biogeochemistry and ecosystem science at the Open University, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. A valid driving license is essential.

Please contact Vincent Gauci (v.gauci@open.ac.uk)  for further information.


Applications should include:

Apologies that some bits of information are requested multiple times on different forms. Please fill in everything requested.

Applications should be sent to


by 5 pm on 25th January 2017