Linking structure to function in plant-fungal symbioses

Mucoroycotina fungal symbionts under the microscope

Structures produced by Mucoroycotina fungal symbionts inside plant host cells, image by Silvia Pressel

The aims of this project are to determine the role of symbiotic Mucoromycotina fungi in plant nitrogen nutrition and how the symbiosis is affected by environmental change.


Many plants form symbioses with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) which increase access to soil mineral nutrients such as phosphorus.

Recently the supervisory team has shown that plants also frequently form symbioses with Mucoromycotina “fine root endophytes” (MFRE), and that these associations may be distinct from those with AMF in their responsiveness to environmental change and in their ability to transfer organic nitrogen alongside mineral phosphorus.

However, much of the biology of the plant-MFRE symbiosis remains to be established. In particular, we do not yet know how the distribution and functional significance of this association is affected by environmental nitrogen availability or by changes in temperature and CO2. This project will fill this fundamental knowledge gap by addressing the following objectives:

Project objectives

  • Determine the frequency and distribution of MFRE in relation to environmental N availability and changes in temperature and CO2. 
  • Quantify the role of MFRE in host plant N nutrition.
  • Characterise plant-fungal interfaces involved in plant-MFRE mutualisms.

By combing field studies with laboratory-based methodologies including state-of-the-art sequencing, isotope tracer and imaging techniques, the student will: 

  • identify plant-MFRE associations across naturally occurring N gradients in the field
  • quantify carbon and nutrient fluxes between MFRE and host plants
  • examine in detail sub-cellular plant-fungus interfaces.

Supervision and Training 

The student will receive exemplary field and laboratory training at two world-class institutions: University of Sheffield and Natural History Museum, London

The student will be supervised by Prof. Katie Field (U. Sheffield), Dr Silvia Pressel (Natural History Museum, London), Prof Gareth Phoenix (U. Sheffield) and Prof. Jonathan Leake (U. Sheffield). The student will acquire skills and become proficient in a variety of laboratory and field techniques, including isotope tracing, plant-fungal physiology, microscopy (SEM, TEM) and experimental design. They will have the opportunity to attend and present their research at UK and international meetings throughout the PhD project, e.g. the British Ecological Society annual meeting, and the International Conference on Mycorrhiza. 

How to apply

Read about eligibilty and how to apply on the Sheffield ACCE website.

The deadline for applications is 15 January 2021.


Hoysted GA, Jacob AS, Kowal J, Giesemann P, Bidartondo MI, Duckett JG, Gebauer G, Rimington WR, Schornack S, Pressel S, Field KJ. (2019). Mucoromycotina fine root endophyte fungi form nutritional mutualisms with vascular plants. Plant Physiology 181: 565-677. 

Field KJ, Bidartondo MI, Rimington WR, Hoysted GA, Beerling DJ, Cameron DD, Duckett JG, Leake JR, Pressel S. (2019) Functional complementarity of ancient plant-fungal mutualisms: contrasting nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon exchanges between Mucoromycotina and Glomeromycotina fungal symbionts of liverworts. New Phytologist 223(2): 908-921.

Rimington WR, Pressel S, Duckett JG, Field KJ, Read DJ, Bidartondo MI. (2019) Ancient plants with ancient fungi: liverworts associate with early-diverging arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences 285: 20181600. 

Apply for this project

Read about how to apply on the ACCE website.

Application deadline: 15 January 2021

Main supervisor

University of Sheffield, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences

Prof. Katie Field


Natural History Museum

Dr Silvia Pressel

University of Sheffield, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences

Prof. Gareth Phoenix

University of Sheffield, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences

Prof. Jonathan Leake

ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships between the Natural History Museum and the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and York, and the NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).

Funded by