Earth and Environment

Soil Biology and Molecular Ecology group


We study the impact of land management practices and climate on the ecology and activities of soil microorganisms using a range of molecular and isotopic techniques.

Our research areas are:

Carbon Sequestration in Soil

Carbon sequestration in soil

We are investigating ways to increase soil carbon storage below the topsoil and identifying management practices that increase the resilience of soil carbon to changing climatic conditions. In many WA agricultural soils the surface 10 cm is storing as much carbon as it can, however  there is an opportunity to double the carbon storage in the 10–30 cm layer. This research will contribute to the sustainable management of carbon sequestered in agricultural soils and to the resilience of the Australian agricultural industry to climate change. 

Greenhouse gas emissions

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

We are investigating GHG emissions from agricultural soils in semi- arid regions to better understand global terrestrial losses. This includes determining whether nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4) emissions are influenced by agricultural practices such as increasing soil carbon, liming and partly substituting urea nitrogen (N) with N fixed by grain-legumes. Previous findings have refined Australia’s emission factor for N2O emissions from the application of synthetic N fertiliser to land, which has been lowered from 1.0% to 0.3% for non-irrigated crops.

Microbial Ecology

Microbial ecology

We are examining how changes in rainfall alter water film connectivity between soil pores and microorganisms involved in greenhouse gas emissions. This will provide a fundamental understanding of how climate change affects microbial processes in soil.

Mine site rehabilitation

Mine site rehabilitation

We are investigating microbial processes in soils during the ecological restoration of mine sites and mineral- processing residues. We research the recovery and succession of microbial diversity, community composition and functions related to nutrient cycling in soil. This research provides a better understanding of rehabilitation practices and their long term sustainability. Our recommendations to Australia’s mining and mineral-processing industry are assisting them to be leaders in setting environmental sustainability criteria.

Mycorrhizal Fungi

Mycorrhizal fungi

We are investigating interactions between arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in plants and soil in sustainable dry-land agriculture and mine sites under rehabilitation. The impact of land management on the contributions of these symbiotic fungi is a focus.

Nutrient cycling & the Rhizosphere

Nutrient cycling & the rhizosphere

We are examining the potential to harness microbial cycling of nitrogen and phosphorus in the rhizosphere to increase plant nutrient uptake. The use of nano- scale secondary ion mass spectrometry (NanoSIMS) enables simultaneous visualisation and measurement of nutrient resource capture between competing plants cells and microorganisms. 

Polymers in agriculture

Polymers in agriculture

We are assessing the effectiveness of a new range of advanced polymers that will help farmers better manage water and nutrients by optimising the growing conditions for plants in the soil. This research will improve productivity on the 30% of Australian cropping land that is water-repellent, assisting Australian farmers to meet the growing global demand for food.

Soil quality

Soil quality

We have established as a national platform to provide resources for growers to gain a greater understanding of the biological, chemical and physical quality of their soils. We are benchmarking these soil quality attributes in key soil types and agricultural systems across Australia. This research will contribute to maintaining the quality of agricultural soils and the sustainability of Australian agriculture. 

Waste Management and Reuse

Waste Management and Reuse

We are evaluating management practices that minimise the environmental impacts) and maximise the benefits) associated with recycling animal waste to soil. This includes improvements to manure storage systems that may permit greenhouse gas mitigation, bioenergy recovery and nutrient recapture, such as covering effluent ponds to create low-cost anaerobic digesters, pelletising manure or composting. We are also identifying the mechanisms involved in soil and pond processes so as to develop indicators of pond stability or soil quality.

Assoc Prof Louise Barton leads a collaborative team of researchers and postgraduate and undergraduate students.

The Soil Biology group is part of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Research Initiative