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Form, function and physics: the ecology of biogenic stabilisation

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


David M. Paterson, Julie A. Hope, Joseph Kenworthy, Catherine L. Biles, Sabine U. Gerbersdorf

School/Research organisations


Purpose:  The objective of this work is to better understand the role that biological mediation plays in the behaviour of fine sediments. This research is supported by developments in ecological theory recognising organisms as “ecosystem engineers” and associated discussion of “niche construction”, suggesting an evolutionary role for habitat modification by biological action. In addition, there is acknowledgement from engineering disciplines that something is missing from fine sediment transport predictions.

Materials and methods:  Advances in technology continue to improve our ability to examine the small-scale 2D processes with large-scale effects in natural environments. Advanced molecular tools can be combined with state-of-the-art field and laboratory techniques to allow the discrimination of microbial biodiversity and the examination of their metabolic contribution to ecosystem function. This in turn can be related to highly resolved measurements and visualisation of flow dynamics.

Results and discussion:  Recent laboratory and field work have led to a paradigm shift whereby hydraulic research has to embrace biology and biogeochemistry to unravel the highly complex issues around on fine sediment dynamics. Examples are provided illustrating traditional and more recent approaches including using multiple stressors in fully factorial designs in both the laboratory and the field to highlight the complexity of the interaction between biology and sediment dynamics in time and space. The next phase is likely to rely on advances in molecular analysis, metagenomics and metabolomics, to assess the functional role of microbial assemblages in sediment behaviour, including the nature and rate of polymer production by bacteria, the mechanism of their influence on sediment behaviour.

Conclusions:  To fully understand how aquatic habitats will adjust to environmental change and to support the provision of various ecosystem services, we require a holistic approach. We must consider all aspects that control the distribution of sediment and the erosion-transport-deposition-consolidation cycle including biological and chemical processes, not just the physical. In particular, the role of microbial assemblages is now recognised as a significant factor deserving greater attention across disciplines.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3044–3054
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Soils and Sediments
Issue number10
Early online date7 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018

    Research areas

  • Biofilm, Biostabilisation, Ecosystem engineering, EPS, ETDC cycle, Metagenomics

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