Ecological and Evolutionary Importance of Molecular Diversity in Dissolved Organic Matter

Dissolved organic matter (DOM) is central to the functioning of freshwater ecosystems that support life on Earth. But despite its importance, DOM remains poorly understood because it has been measured with little resolution for nearly 200 years. Recent technological advances have shown that a handful of lake water can contain more than 2,000 different molecules of varying origin and composition. A key question that now needs answering is what do all these different molecules do in aquatic ecosystems? With funding from the European Research Council, we have embarked on 5-year project (2019-2024) to resolve this mystery.

Our project "sEEIngDOM" aims to discover the importance of the tremendous diversity of molecules – termed chemodiversity – found in DOM for lake functioning and human wellbeing. It will do so by combining cutting-edge techniques in analytical chemistry, genomics, and statistical modelling with careful lab-based studies, proven field experiments, and large-scale observational surveys. By thinking about species of molecules as we would species of organisms, this project will draw upon rich theory and methods developed for the study of biodiversity. The work will allow us to learn how variation in chemodiversity across lakes is driven by associations with different microbes and how these microbes reciprocally adapt and evolve to different DOM. In the process, we will improve predictions of how important functions and services provided by lakes, such as C cycling and drinking water, vary with chemodiversity. An exciting application of this work is to improve emerging technologies for water purification by identifying microbial consortia that can consume chemodiversity and make water clearer.

Through sEEIngDOM, our group also coordinates the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network project DOMseasons. DOMseasons is tracking monthly variation in DOM and its associated drivers at 70 sites worldwide alongside over 100 participants.


Community-led wildlife health monitoring for a resilient and healthy Nunavik

Climate change is bringing new wildlife pathogens to the Arctic that can detrimentally impact Inuit health and wellbeing, but local communities lack an integrated approach to detect and respond to these threats despite concern over their impacts.

In collaboration with Nunavik Research Centre and others, and supported by the Canada-Inuit Nunangat-United Kingdom Arctic Research Programme supported for 3-years (2022-2025) by NERC, we are building a community-led Inuit wildlife health monitoring programme. The overall objective of this programme is to detect climate-sensitive infectious diseases and trends in current diseases that impact wildlife, the safety and security of country food, and Inuit health. To do so, we will develop and validate novel techniques to detect wildlife pathogens at a watershed-scale by sampling DNA and RNA shed into the natural environment. These techniques will overcome the challenge of directly monitoring pathogens in large wildlife, such as caribou, whose home ranges span hundreds of kilometers of inaccessible and remote terrain, and collect important baseline data to discover new pathogens of risk to wildlife and people.

This project dovetails with a 2-year (2022-2024) project funded by the European Commission (2022-2024) to study ancient viruses in thawing permafrost. The PermAVirThaw project aims to identify the viruses of microbes archived in perennially frozen ground known as permafrost and determine their capacity to infect present-day bacteria and alter their role in biogeochemical cylces.


Landscape Regeneration Solutions to the Interlinked Extinction and Climate Crises

Nature-based solutions offer promise as way to mitigate climate change, protect biodiversity, and support human well-being. With funding from NERC and partners across the Cambridge Centre of Landscape Regeneration, we are embarking on a 5-year project (2022-2027) to deliver knowledge and tools to help regenerate the British countryside.

Our research group is specifically assessing the outcomes of different management interventions for ecosystem services and biodiversity in peatlands. We are working to build a molecular-level understanding of how microbes degrade peat and upscale this knowledge alongside measurements of greenhouse gas fluxes to inform climate change mitigation strategies.