Ambitious research to study fundamental Earth and science questions

16 September 2021

The University of East Anglia is leading one of five innovative new research projects that could push the boundaries of science and help us understand key questions of environmental and earth science. 

The ambitious studies are each tackling fundamental questions about the earth and our environment, including how we interact with our planet.

At UEA, Prof Corinne Le Quéré from the School of Environmental Sciences will lead work that aims to establish the limits of stability of the Earth’s marine ecosystems, using modelling on a scale not undertaken before.

Marine micro-organisms live on the ocean surface and once they die or are eaten, organic matter sinks to the bottom of the sea. This is a vital process in regulating our climate.

Understanding the causes of mortality of micro-organisms - and the roles of viruses, microplastics and early life cycles - is therefore critical. Organisms’ lifespans are very short and so changes in mortality can substantially impact marine ecosystems. Yet mortality processes have received little attention so far.

Prof Le Quéré said: “Using data from new technology, including imaging of ocean plankton, we will develop and use a global ecosystem model to better understand how marine ecosystems are impacted by multiple stressors, including climate change, ocean acidification, microplastic pollution, and pressure from fisheries, and test the limits of their stability under extreme conditions.”

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has invested a total of £8 million in the projects as part of a unique pilot scheme to fund high risk and innovative science. This is the first time NERC has launched a scheme of this kind. 

The Pushing the Frontiers scheme aims to facilitate truly adventurous and ambitious science and exploit new technologies and approaches. The projects, which will be funded for between three and four years, will also look at: 

  • Establish whether the Earth's Core has multiple layers by building computer models to explain seismic and magnetic field data. The research could change our understanding of processes that generate our planet’s protective magnetic field.

  • Conduct the first comprehensive study of epigenetics, and whether environmental factors can cause changes in the way our genes are read, by following the lifecycles of a rare breed of sheep on the remote island of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides.

  • Investigate whether deep sea hydrothermal vents sustained or even created the first life on earth. The research team will also investigate what that can tell us about the possibilities life in volcanically active planets including Mars.

  • Build our understanding of how single cell plant-like super marine organisms, called coccolithophores, use the sun’s energy to transform dissolved ions from the sea back into rocks.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “If the UK is to lead the world in achieving scientific breakthroughs, it’s vital that we give our most pioneering scientists and researchers license to go where others haven’t before by driving forward high-risk, high-reward research.

“That’s why we are backing these five ambitious studies to the tune of £8m, to help solve unanswered questions about our Universe – from the origins of Earth to whether there is life on Mars - all while helping to secure the UK’s status as a global science superpower.”

Robyn Thomas, Associate Director of Research and Skills at NERC, said: “These highly innovative research projects could advance our understanding of fundamental questions in environmental and earth science, and lead to important scientific breakthroughs. The grants are the outcome of an exciting new pilot scheme to encourage and fund some of the UK’s most exceptional environmental scientists to lead more risky and transformational research.”