Biology: DFG extends international postgraduate school at Halle University – News from Leipzig

More than four million euros for tree and shrub research: The international graduate school “TreeDì” at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) can continue its work. This was decided by the Senate of the German Research Foundation (DFG) on Friday. The program is implemented in cooperation with the universities of Jena and Leipzig, as well as the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS).

On the German side, PhD students are housed at the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig. The aim of the research is to better understand the interaction between trees and shrubs in forests.

The results of the first phase of the Research Training Group (GRK) are impressive: four PhDs completed and 33 publications in internationally recognized journals, including “Science Advances”, “Ecology Letters” and “Global Change Biology”. “It’s a great summary and shows that you can conduct top international research even during a pandemic,” says GRK spokesperson prof. dr. Helge Bruelheide from MLU.

GRK started in 2018. Since then, the focus has been on how trees interact and cooperate in the forest, for example by exchanging nutrients with each other through roots and fungal partners. Doctoral projects are dedicated to the basic processes and mechanisms of this cooperation. “Forests are among the most important ecosystems in the world because they bind large amounts of carbon dioxide, decisively regulate the climate and are the habitat of numerous animal species,” says Bruelheide.

Several stays abroad in China were initially planned for the research work, as custom-made forests with over 200 different combinations of tree species were planted there as part of the world’s largest biodiversity experiment “BEF-China”. However, the German side’s on-site research had to be suspended from 2020 due to the pandemic.

“Instead, we carried out a large experiment in greenhouses in Germany and here we sowed twelve species of trees from China, let them grow in special test containers and observed their interactions,” says Bruelheide. Experiments that have been carried out for years at the research station of the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Bad Lauchstädt in southern Saxony-Anhalt were also used. “So we had our own, smaller biodiversity experiment on site, with which we could compare German and Chinese tree species,” Bruelheide continues.

In addition to scientific knowledge, the professional article with the scientific community shared experiences about managing an international research project and how to deal with a pandemic.

In the new phase of funding until 2027, work on tree-tree interactions is intensified, and a new topic is added: “There are many bushes in the forests between the trees.” They are the second layer in the forest and even dominate many ecosystems, but until now they have been largely underrepresented in research,” says Bruelheide.

Therefore, some of the projects in the new funding phase will investigate how trees and shrubs interact. One question, for example, is whether shrubs become attached to underground fungal networks of trees or form their own. This may also clarify how species diversity can increase the stability of forest ecosystems.

Half of the 18 new doctoral positions that will be available in the next funding period are in Germany, and half in China. In addition to the bilateral research program, PhD students benefit from tailor-made qualification offers and joint research stays in Germany and China.

“We are glad that we can continue and expand close scientific cooperation and international exchange with GRK”, says prof. dr. Yanfen Wang, spokeswoman for the Chinese side. An excellent research environment is available at UCAS in China and at iDiv, managed by the universities of Halle, Jena and Leipzig and the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ).

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