School of Natural and Environmental Sciences

Ecology Research Students

Justin Byrne

Project description

I am a PhD candidate investigating soil microbial decomposer communities, funded by the Woodland Trust. I am interested in unpicking how soil-microbial communities change as woodlands get older.

Does biodiversity differ between similar woodlands of different ages? Does the "shape" of those ecological communities differ when they are represented as a food-web or “ecological network”? How do differences relating to season or soil chemistry affect this?

I am making use of DNA metabarcoding; a relatively new genetic approach to identify organisms taxonomically. This method will allow me to use environmental samples, such as soil or decomposing leaves, to better understand the microbial biodiversity found within or on them.

I will use this data to construct ecological networks, which map, or “graph”, the relationships between different taxonomic groups within the community. The “shape” of this “graph” can be expressed mathematically, allowing us to express and compare the complex nature of multiple real ecosystems.

Finally, I hope to relate these measures of biodiversity (taxonomic richness and network “shape”) to the ecosystem services that woodlands provide to us for free.


  • Justin G.D. Byrne, Jonathan W. Pitchford; Species reintroduction and community-level consequences in dynamically simulated ecosystems, Bioscience Horizons: The International Journal of Student Research, Volume 9, 1 January 2016, hzw009,


I am interested in how we can represent ecosystems holistically. Ecosystems are very complex, but I am interested in how advances in the field of network theory can produce simple measures that describe complicated phenomena.

These approaches require very large amounts of data, so I am also interested in how we can collect large datasets cost-effectively and time-effectively. This led me to working with genetic methods of identifying organisms.

Ultimately, I am interested in the commonalities found in “healthy” ecosystems that work both for humans and the natural environment.


  • BSc Biology with a Year in Industry (University of York)
  • MRes Biology (University of York)