Ecology of fine root endophytes in native and agricultural ecosystems across Australia

Understanding the drivers of symbiotic fungi in Australia

This project will investigate the abundance, diversity and function of fine root endophytes (FRE) in Australian native and agricultural ecosystems. Together with an interdisciplinary team of students and scientists from three countries you'll complete a comprehensive field survey, novel molecular analyses and innovative glasshouse experiments.

In early 2017 our research team published ground-breaking research showing that root-colonising fungi known as fine root endophytes (FRE), previously assumed to be a form of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF; phylum Glomeromycota), are actually aligned with a different sub-phylum (Mucoromycotina).

Like AMF, FRE form arbuscules, are globally distributed and colonise species from the majority of plant families. Thus it is likely that FRE, like AMF, play a significant role in ecosystem processes such as carbon and nutrient cycling, pathogen defense, maintenance of plant diversity and response to environmental change. However, the new taxonomy suggested by our research could imply that FRE are not just morphologically distinct from AMF, but evolutionarily and ecologically distinct too.

For instance, colonisation by FRE can be greater than that of AMF in colder regions, autumn-sown annual crops and pastures in Australia, under waterlogging, and for disturbed sites such as mine tailings. Indeed, FRE have higher waterlogging tolerance than AMF and are thought to play a critical role in the physiological response of liverworts to elevated carbon dioxide.

You can develop a project that suits your interests, based on the skills you wish to gain, and career goals. The project can involve one or more of the following components:

  • Field work in native and/or agricultural systems
  • Greenhouse experiments to test the effect of FRE and AMF on plant fitness
  • Molecular laboratory work

For more background information, see the suggested readings below.

Project goals

Determine the key ecological drivers of abundance and diversity of FRE

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Determine the impact of FRE on growth and nutrition of native and crop plants

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Determine whether abundance and diversity of FRE is similar to that of co-occurring arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) within and among biomes

Research team leader: Professor Megan Ryan

I work across both agricultural and natural ecosystems in a range of research areas.  I have long researched various aspects of the mycorrhizal fungus symbiosis and it, along with fine root endophytes (FRE), remain key research areas. I support a large, collaborative research team with strengths in plant physiology and nutrition, ecology, agronomy and roots and rhizosphere. 

How to apply

Interested in becoming part of this project? Complete the following steps to submit your expression of interest:

Step 1 - Check criteria

General UWA PhD entrance requirements can be found on the Future Students website.

Requirements specific to this project:

  • Capacity for team work and to facilitate collaboration among team members is highly encouraged
  • Master's or Honours degree in a relevant discipline
  • Basic knowledge of statistical analyses in R is desirable

Step 2 - Submit enquiry to research team leader

Step 3 - Lodge application

After you have discussed your project with the research team leader, you should be in a position to proceed to the next step of the UWA application process: Lodge an applicationDifferent application procedures apply to domestic and international students.


Collaboration and funding

Please contact us if you wish to be part of our project. We are happy to host visitors to UWA.



ARC Discovery grant DP180103157: 2018-2020


Interested in volunteering? You would be involved in glasshouse experiment set-up, maintenance, and harvest. Additionally, volunteers are welcome to learn new laboratory techniques, such as root clearing and staining to evaluate root colonization.



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