Professor David Johnson

Personal Chair

Professor David Johnson

Contact Details

Telephone: +44 (0)1224 273857
Fax: 01224 272703
Personal website:

Research Gate

Researcher ID: N-3193-2013

Google Scholar citations

Address: Rm 1:24, School of Biological Sciences, Cruickshank building, University of Aberdeen, St. Machar Drive, Aberdeen AB24 3UU UK


2014 - present. Director of Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences (IBES), University of Aberdeen.

2003 - 2014. NERC Advanced Fellow, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor, University of Aberdeen.

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Sheffield 1997-2003. Working with Prof Jonathan Leake and Prof Sir David Read on the NERC Soil Biodiversity thematic programme.

Ph.D. University of Sheffield 1998. Thesis title: Soil microbial biomass and activity and plant nutrition in semi-natural ecosystems subjected to pollutant nitrogen deposiiton. Supervised by JR Leake and JA Lee

M.Sc. Soil Science. University of Aberdeen 1994. Thesis title: Effect of heavy-metal contaminated sewage sludge on C and N mineralisation in a coniferous forest soil. Prize for best thesis.

B.Sc. (Hons.) Environmental technology. University of Sunderland 1993. Thesis title: Soil ingestion and its contribution to radionuclide intakes by sheep grazing under differing husbandry practices. See Green et al 1996 Journal of Environmental Radioactivity.

Research Interests

My research group (see below for a list of happy, curious (as in eager!) and talented people) have diverse interests covering the following exciting areas of science:

  • Quantifying carbon transfer between plants and soils;
  • The importance of both intra- and inter-specific diversity of plants and microorganisms in regulating ecosystem functioning;
  • The impact of nitrogen deposition and global climate change on semi-natural ecosystems;
  • Above-below ground interactions, such as how seabirds affect terrestrial plant communities; plant to plant communication of aphid attack; plant-mycorrhiza-invertebrate-microbe interactions; herbivore-plant interactions; linking plant functional diversity to ecosystem processes;
  • The ecology of mycorrhizal fungi, mainly arbuscular, ecto- and ericoid mycorrhizas.

These interests are addressed, sometimes using sophisticated techniques such as stable and radioisotope tracers, in a range of ecosystems including native Scots pine woodland, tropical forests, species-rich semi-natural limestone grassland, peatlands, montane heaths and cropped systems. Our approaches are applied at scales from whole ecosystem (NERC BALI project) to whole organism. Funding is mainly from NERC and BBSRC.


Current Research

Current postdoctoral research fellows:

Dr Sabine Both, who is part of the NERC BALI team working on tropical forests, especially quantifying how plant and litter traits impact biogeochemical cycles.

Dr Mathilde Chomel, who is working on a NERC Soil Security consortium project investigating how soil food web structure controls the ability of soils and their functions, related to biogeochemical cycling and greenhouse gas production, to withstand, recover and potentially adapt to disturbance events.

Dr Ben Jackson, who works on the BBSRC Ecotraits project, and is testing how plant functional diversity in grassland affects ecosystem processes.

Dr Xubing Liu, who is working on a NERC Discovery grant with fieldwork based in Danum Valley to test how mycorrhizal fungi partition soil phosphorus in tropical forests.

Dr Jen Walker, who is working on a NERC Discovery grant and investigating the costs and benefits of evolving host specialisation in ectomycorrhizal fungi.


Current research technicians and support staff:

Dr Hedda Weitz, who manages our labs in Aberdeen.

Jaime Buckingham, who provides technical support for several projects

Dr Laura Kruitbos, who helps coordinate the BALI project.

Dr Ully Kritzler, who supports Sabine on the BALI project.

Nils Alvarez-Segura, who is supporting Mathilde.


Current research students:

  1. Mike Ogden. University of Aberdeen.  “How do fungi modify the soil physical environment?” (lead: Prof P Hallett). 2013-2017.
  2. Jenny Slater. Scottish Food Security Alliance. “Managing soils to promote plant defence against pests” (with Drs LA Gilbert and A Karley, James Hutton Institute). 2014-2017.
  3. Peggy Ehrlich, MDT/University of Aberdeen. “Host identity and climate as determinants of ectomycorrhizal fungal distribution in Scotland” (Lead: Dr Andy Taylor, with Prof Robin Pakeman, James Hutton Institute). 2014-2017.
  4. Eleanna Grammatopoulou. “Investigating the origin(s) and fate of sediment organic matter” (Led by Dan Mayor, National Oceanography Centre). 2014-2017.
  5. Nur Aqilah Mustafa Bakray. Malaysian Government. “Ectomycorrhizal fungi in tropical forests”. (Lead: Dr Andy Taylor, James Hutton Institute). 2015-2018.
  6. Matthew Guy. Macaulay Development Trust/University of Stirling. “Seabird-mediated impacts of marine environment changes on agri-ecosystem productivity” (With Drs L Gilbert and K Park). 2015-2018.
  7. Jacob Hargreaves. BBSRC EastBio (50%), South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) (25%) and the South Georgian Government (25%) "The dynamics of endemic fungal and oomycete biodiversity and ecology in response to the reindeer-cullingprogramme in South Georgia". (Lead: Prof Pieter van West, IMS, with Dr Paul Brickle). 2015-2018.
  8. José Van Paassen. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). "Upland management to increase carbon sequestration". (Lead: Dr Sarah Woodin, with Drs Andrea Britton, Rebekka Artz and Lorna Street). 2015-2018.
  9. Longwin Sii (Sarawak Oil Palms Berhad). “Soil microbial activity and its relation to the release of greenhouse gases in tropical peatland” (Led by Dr Yit Arn Teh). 2015-2018. 


The Biodiversity and Land-Use Impacts on Tropical Ecosystem Function (BALI) project team

Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, University of Western Sydney

ECOS, at EPFL Lausanne

Richard Bardgett and Franciska De Vries, The University of Manchester

Nick Ostle, Lancaster University

Lucy Gilbert, Andy Taylor, Tim Daniell, Alison Bennett, Robin Pakeman and Ali Karley, James Hutton Institute

Kirsty Park, Stirling University

Thorunn Helgason and Joe Taylor, University of York

Pieter van West, IMS, University of Aberdeen

Mark Emmerson and Tancredi Caruso, Queens University Belfast

Research Grants

“What makes a specialist special? The physiology of ecological specialization in plant-fungal mutualisms”. May 2015-2018. NERC Standard. £630k. PI: D Johnson. NE/M015653/1.

“Controls on the stability of soils and their functioning under land use and climate change” April 2015-2018. NERC/BBSRC Soil Security. £1.629M. PI: R Bardgett; PI: Aberdeen component: D Johnson. CoI: Mark Emmerson, Liz Baggs, Franciska De Vries, Tancredi Caruso. NE/M017028/1.

“Explaining niche separation in tropical forests: feedbacks between root-fungal symbioses and soil phosphorus partitioning”. NERC Standard. £1.12M (£662754 to Aberdeen); PI: D Burslem, Co-I: D. Johnson, A Taylor and T Helgason (York).

“A rhizotrait framework for the northern and southern hemispheres” BBSRC International Partnering Award (2014-2018).Value: £30561. PI: EM Baggs, CoI: D Johnson.  BB/L026759/1.

“Biodiversity and land-use impacts on tropical ecosystem function (BALI)”. NERC Human Modified Tropical Forests programme. ~£4.4M consortium led by Dr Yit Arn-Teh; PI for Aberdeen component (£888,892): D Johnson. The Aberdeen component funds 5 years of PDRA time and 3 years of technician time. NE/K016253/1.

"The importance of intra- and interspecific diversity of ectomycorrhizal fungi on ecosystem functioning" October 2011-Sept 2014. NERC Standard. Value £516,797. NE/I014527/1.

"Contribution of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi to carbon fluxes in grassland in response to climate manipulation" May 2011-October 2011. NERC Small. Value £64,928. NE/I017097/1.

"Linkages between plant functional diversity, soil biological communities and ecosystem services in agricultural grassland" June 2011-May 2016. BBSRC Responsive. Value: ~£1.5M (Aberdeen £353,238). PI: Prof RD Bardgett.

"Contribution of plant intraspecific diversity to carbon turnover in grassland" May 2010-January 2011. NERC Small Grant. Value: £51,426. NE/H010939/1.

"How do interactions between herbivores and mycorrhizal fungi regulate production of plant signalling compounds and parasitoid behaviour?" October 2009-March 2013. NERC Open CASE. Value £65,937. NE/G012008/1.

"Unravelling the functional diversity of fungi in ericaceous hair roots" NERC Small Grant (with Prof IJ Alexander). July 2009-October 2010. Value: £53,059. NE/G010404/1.

"The significance of ericoid mycorrhizal mycelium for carbon turnover in heathland" October 2008-March 2012. NERC Open CASE. Value £67,173. NE/F013760/1.

"Can plant genotypic diversity select for mycorrhizal fungal diversity in grasslands?" Royal Society. June 2006-May 2007. Value: £7700.

"Mycorrhizal interactions in native pinewoods: are ericoid and ectomycorrhizal fungi genetically and functionally distinct?" October 2004-October 2009. NERC Standard (with Prof IJ Alexander) Value: £291,966. NE/C003128/1.

"Influence of soil mesofaunal communities on carbon flux to ectomycorrhizal fungi and saprotrophic microorganisms" September 2004-September 2006. Funding: NERC. Value: £50,483. NE/C507510/1

NERC Advanced Fellowship. "Does below ground carbon allocation drive soil biodiversity in Boreal forests?" Sept. 2003-Sept 2008.  Value: £243,604. NER/J/S/2002/00652

Teaching Responsibilities


Programme coordinator (with Justin Travis) of MSc/MRes Ecology & Environmental Sustainability. More details can be found here: MSc_Ecol_and_Env_Sust_flyer.pdf.

Coordinator for PL5504 Biology and Ecology of Mycorrhizas and EK5502 Advanced Ecological Concepts.

Contribute to BI5009 Experimental Design and Analysis, EV5303 Environmental Microbiology and Biotechnology and PL3303/PL5303 Ecosystem Processes.


Biology for Undergraduates; PL3303/5503 Ecosystem Processes; BI20PI Plant Diversity; BI25P2 Biological Topics in Plant and Soil Science.

Research Projects:

I am always keen to supervise BSc Hons and MSc research projects, and some of these have led to publications. Past projects have included:

Testing how genotypic diversity in grasses affects ecosystem processes (Eamon Haughey)

Investigating the impact of nitrogen deposition on peatlands (Sam Green, Lucy Moore)

Whether mycorrhizal fungi affect plant-aphid interactions (Kate Randall)

Movement of nutrients from sea to land by great skua on Shetland (Ben Leonard, Chris Dosser)


External Responsibilities

Full member NERC Peer Review College (2008-).

Board of Advisors, New Phytologist.

Associate Editor for Ecology and Evolution

NERC Tropical Forests working Group

Natural Environment’ grants panel member for the Swedish Research Council FORMAS

Admin Responsibilities

Director, Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences

Recent Cool Discoveries

Babikova Z, Gilbert L, Bruce TJA, Birkett M, Caulfield JC, Woodcock C, Pickett JA, Johnson D. (2013)Underground signals carried through common mycelial networks warn neighbouring plants of aphid attack. Ecology Letters 16, 835-843.  This paper shows that chemical signals produced in response to aphid attack by bean plants can be transmitted below ground via common mycelial networks to neighbouring uninfested plants, enabling them to produce chemicals that repel aphids and attract parasitoid wasps, which kill aphids. This finding means we must now redefine our understanding of how multi-trophic interactions are regulated in ecosystems, and recognise the crucial role played by common mycorrhizal fungal networks. The work was highlighted by >30 national and international media outlets and lay-publications (e.g. BBC Online, The Scientist, BBC Radio Scotland, The Economist, Science, Bionieuws, Kew Magazine, BBSRC Business). The paper was recommended for Faculty1000Prime, the directory of top biology articles, and is identified as being ‘highly cited’ in Essential Science Indicators. ESI Highly Cited Papers list the top cited papers over the last 10 years across 22 scientific disciplines.

Post Doctoral Research Fellows and Technicians

Former postdoctoral research fellows:

Dr Christina Hazard, who works on intra-specific and species diversity of ectomycorrhizal fungi.

Dr Gwen Grelet, Landcare Research, NZ 

Dr Rob Mills, Lancaster University

Dr Marta Dondini, University of Aberdeen


Completed studentships:

  1. C. J. Trinder, BBSRC funded. “Carbon cycling in regenerating peatlands”. (With Dr RRE Artz, James Hutton Institute). 2004-2007.
  2. N. Papanikolaou, DEFRA/Macaulay Institute. “Impacts of increased nitrogen deposition on carbon and nutrient dynamics in montane ecosystems”. 2004-2007.
  3. M. T. Prendergast, NERC funded. Does carbon flux from mycorrhizal fungi stimulate N2O production in soils? (With Prof EM Baggs) 2005-2008.
  4. P. Currey, 6th Century/Macaulay funded. Interactions between atmospheric nitrogen deposition and carbon dynamics in peatlands. (With Dr RRE Artz, James Hutton Institute). 2005 -2009.
  5. E. Siasou, 6th Century/Greek Government. Interactions among a soil-borne pathogen, mycorrhizal fungi and rhizobacteria (With Prof K Killham and Dr D Standing). 2006-2010.
  6. A. Wilkinson, NERC funded. "Regulation of soil respiration by mycorrhizal fungi-does diversity matter? (with Prof Ian Alexander) 2007-2011.
  7. S. Popoola, Self funded “Interactions between mycorrhizal fungi and crop pathogens in inter-cropped farming system-implications for phosphorus uptake”. 2008-2011.
  8. U. Kritzler, NERC Open CASE. “The significance of ericoid mycorrhizal mycelium for carbon turnover in heathland” (with Prof I Alexander and Dr RRE Artz, Macaulay Institute). 2008-2012.
  9. M. F. Ahmad Ramli, Malaysian Government funded. “Phosphorus turnover in organic soils”. 2008-2013.
  10. F. Ologaidi, Self funded. Interactions between rice and phosphorus in soils (Lead Dr A Price). 2009-2013.
  11. Z. Babikova, NERC Open CASE. “How do interactions between herbivores and mycorrhizal fungi regulate production of plant signalling compounds and parasitoid behaviour?” (with Prof J Pickett FRS and Dr T Bruce, Rothamsted Research and Dr L Gilbert, James Hutton Institute). 2009-2012.
  12. R. Tajuddin, Malaysian Government. “Role of specialist and generalist ectomycorrhizal fungi in forests” (with Prof I Alexander). 2009-2012.
  13. S. Smith, BBSRC “Enhancing carbon sequestration through grazing management” (with Dr R van der Wal and Dr S Woodin and R Pakeman, JHI). 2009-2012.
  14. B. Khan, British Council Commonwealth Scholarship. “Interactions between arsenic and mycorrhizal fungi in agroforestry crops” (with Prof AA Meharg). 2010-2014.
  15. L. Moore, NERC. “Interactions between ectomycorrhizal fungi and lower plants” (with Dr S Woodin). 2010-2014.
  16. A. Van den Bos, joint University of Aberdeen/James Hutton Institute “Effects of differential disturbance on arbuscular mycorrhizal community structure and function” (with Drs T Daniell and A Bennett). 2011-2014.


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