Current Research Projects

Previous Projects

Measuring and modelling of soil functions

Bonares Funding: Federal Ministry of Education and Research
Project term: 2022 - 2025 (third phase)

Soil as a sustainable resource

Soil fertility is essential for sustainable plant production and, consequently, the basis for many bioeconomic value chains. From a sustainability perspective, soils need to provide not only marketable yields, but also several other ecosystem services. These include, i.e., the storage of water and carbon, filters for clean groundwater, and the maintenance of nutrient cycles and biodiversity. Sustainable soil management needs to combine and optimize all these aspects. The objective of BonaRes is to significantly expand and provide the required knowledge about the functionality of soils and to formulate reliable options for action. The BonaRes Programme currently funds ten interdisciplinary research consortia as well as the integrating BonaRes Centre for Soil Research

Prof. Dr. Hans-Jörg Vogel , Dr. Ute Wollschläger ,

Funding: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG
Project term: 2019 - 2023

Monitoring and modelling of non-equilibrium soil water dynamics and lateral subsurface flow in hillslope soils

In well-drained, unsaturated soils, water moves predominantly vertically. Lateral flow is initiated at locations where the soil approaches water saturation and capillary forces vanish. The onset of lateral flow along impeding soil horizon boundaries and other heterogeneities in hillslopes cannot be described realistically even with spatially-distributed 3D numerical models. A process-based model concept for transient lateral flow in the unsaturated zone of hillslope soils is still missing. One major difficulty to develop such a concept is that water dynamics in field soil exhibit non-equilibrium effects and hysteresis due to structural heterogeneities. Consequently, lateral flow is triggered already at local water potentials close to zero, i.e. far before complete water saturation occurs as is commonly assumed. Another difficulty is the need for a 2D or 3D representation of the hillslope and the corresponding high demand of both data and computing power.In this project, we develop a conceptual framework to described non-equilibrium dynamics and hysteresis for 1D vertical flow in a physically consistent way. The analysis will be based on unique data sets provided by the VAMOS lysimeter system and the TERENO-SoilCan lysimeter network, which monitor water contents and matric potentials in different field soils (3D) and lysimeters (1D) since 2013.


Prof. Dr. Hans-Jörg Vogel , Dr. Horst Herbert Gerke, Dr. Thomas Wöhling


Leibniz-Zentrum für Agrarlandschaftsforschung (ZALF) e.V., Dresden University of Technology - TU Dresden

Funding: Forest Climate Fund, Fachagentur Nachwachsende Rohstoffe e.V. (FNR)
Project term: 01.10.2021 - 30.09.2025

Process-based quantification of CO2 fluxes of differently structured forest ecosystems at different spatial scales

Forests may be able to capture the greenhouse gas CO2 from the atmosphere, thereby mitigating climate change. The degree to which an individual forest does so can be quantified by determining its carbon balance. One of the most important uncertainties thereby is the assessment of soil respiration at a spatial scale that is relevant for the respective forest ecosystem. This is largely due to the very heterogeneous soil structure and composition.
The project aims to improve the mechanistic description of the CO2 fluxes at areas of several square meters by further developing an innovative measurement technology to determine CO2 concentrations in the soil for larger areas than currently possible. Our CO2 sensor (called line-sensor) that works in the laboratory (Lazik et al., 2019; Sever and Lazik, 2019) will be set-up for the first time in the field near the forest observation site Kienhorst (Schorfheide, Brandenburg/Germany) together with our project partners of the Eberswalde Forestry Competence Centre (LFE).
The sensor consists of flexible tube that is permeable for gases. The difference between the CO2 concentration in the soil and that inside the sensor tube, which is flushed with air, leads to a pressure change of the confined air after the tube has been closed on both sides. This pressure change, compared with a reference measurement in another tube, allows the external CO2 concentration sought to be determined. By burying such line-sensors at various depths, we will be able to measure the vertical gradient in CO2 concentrations in soils for several years, averaged along the length of the line-sensor tubes.
These line-sensors will be installed in different depths in forest soils in three stands with different vegetation types. In addition to the large-scale CO2 measurements that will enable averaging of the CO2 concentration over several meters, point measurements will be made with conventional sensors for comparison, together with measurements of the soil water status, meteorological measurements, measurements of atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and measurements of tree growth.
The data will help determine soil respiration, thereby quantifying an elusive term in the carbon balance of a forest. In combination with carbon sequestration in the biomass this will help determine whether temperate forests can be sources or sinks of carbon, and quantify the amount of carbon they absorb from or release into the atmosphere.


Dr. Detlef Lazik , Dr. Gerrit de Rooij

Funding: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG
Project term: since 2022

Plot Scale Soil Diffusivity Measurement System


Soils play a crucial role in the global cycle of greenhouse gases and gas exchange between soil and atmosphere is of central importance, but its spatial and temporal dynamics are not yet understood sufficiently. Several small-scale methods exist to determine gas concentration and soil diffusivity (Ds) under laboratory conditions and in the field. However, due to the natural spatial heterogeneity of soils and the temporal dynamics of soil structure, it is hardly possible to transfer these results to the field scale.Our goal is to develop a system for measuring gas diffusivity (PeDiM) in arable soils. The new measuring system averages over local heterogeneities, and measures Ds at the field scale. It has already been shown that gas concentrations can be measured in porous media using tubular, nonporous, gas-selective membranes. The underlying measuring principle is based on the selective diffusion of the individual gas components of soil air into an arrangement of membrane tubes, which can be installed into the soil in defined length. Based on this principle, we will develop an in-situ measuring and monitoring system for Ds. Therefore, the following steps are planned: i) The new measuring principle developed in this project for quasi-continuous determination of Ds is implemented for a PeDiM prototype on laboratory scale. ii) For precise positioning of the PeDiM system in the soil, an installation device that causes minimum soil disturbance will be developed. iii) The PeDiM prototype will be tested in 2D and 3D mesocosm experiments for various substrates under controlled conditions. Parallel diffusion measurements with established measurement techniques allow the configuration of PeDiM to be optimized. iv) The optimized, final PeDiM systems will be installed in an arable field soil, and Ds will be measured in the topsoil for several months. The results will be interpreted in the context of weather-dependent soil water content changes and the dynamic changes of soil structure. Direct comparison of the PeDiM results with established, small-scale lab and profile scale diffusivity measurements will allow the investigation and confirmation of scale effects experimentally.In the end, our project will provide an innovative long-term stable measuring and monitoring system that allows the quasi-continuous measurement of Ds on the field scale for the first time. This captures an essential parameter for transport processes with respect to atmospheric boundary conditions on a scale relevant for soil-atmosphere interaction. Particularly interesting for arable soils is the completely new approach to assess the interaction between temporal dynamics of soil structure and Ds. Furthermore, continuous monitoring of Ds allows the linkage of turnover processes in soils with greenhouse gas emissions, which finally supports the development of predictive models.


Dr. Detlef Lazik , Dr. Nina Stoppe-Struck

Partner: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Universität Hannover

Reeks Funding: Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung - BMBF
Project term: since 2018

Innovative solutions for a sustainable agricultural land use in the dry steppes of Kazakhstan and southwestern Siberia

In the arid steppe regions of Kazakhstan and southwestern Siberia, the problems of soil degradation, climate change, and change of land use necessitates innovations for a sustainable use of agricultural resources. By a distinguished combination of research, development, and implementation, the project aims at developing innovative, sustainable, and climate-adapted agricultural concepts and to support infrastructure for an information and advisory system, based on an already perfectly established cooperation between scientists, German companies as well as local land users and other interest representatives.

SP 2 - Optimization of water supply by innovative soil management

Plant-accessible water is the limiting factor for agricultural yields in the steppe zone of Kazakhstan, especially in the light of the ongoing climate change with an increase in the mean annual temperatures along with more infrequent precipitation events in the study area. SP 2 aims at improving soil water supply to plants, e.g. by optimization of snow retention or by reducing unproductive evaporative water losses by ultra-shallow soil tillage practices. For that a novel weighable lysimeter station consisting of two gravitation lysimeters and allowing long-term online operation will be developed and implemented, and quantitative and qualitative parameters of the soil water budget will be recorded for different soil management systems. High-resolution measurements concern for example the determination of the actual evaporation. Being equipped with a multitude of atmosphere and soil, the lysimeter station of SP 2 will also serve as a basis for the recording climate change effects in the region of the Kazakh dry steppes and compared with the development in the Kulunda steppe in southwest Siberia, where another lysimeter station is running. With additional information from the analysis of plant water and nutrients uptake, efficient water management approaches for sustainable and resource saving agriculture will be developed.


Prof. Dr. Ralph Meißner

Dr. Holger Rupp

Partner: UGT


Structure and Functions of Soils

UFZ Funding: UFZ
Project term: 2022 - 2025

GLIMPSE Research consortium: „Global change impacts on microbiota-plant-soil processes relevant for water and matter cycling in agricultural ecosystems“

Subproject P3: "Root-Soil Interactions"

The project (P3) focuses on the link between root systems and soil structure with implications for water and nutrient fluxes.

Dr. Steffen Schlüter , Prof. Dr. Doris Vetterlein , adj. Prof. Dr. Mika Tarkka

Subproject P4: "Modelling""

The project (P4) focuses on dynamics of water, C, N, long-term projections and scenario testing.


Dr. Sara König , Dr. Franziska Taubert , Prof. Dr. Hans-Jörg Vogel


SoilASystems Funding: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG
Project term: since 2021

SoilSystems (SPP 2322) - P5: MICROHEAT

Heat dissipation and matter turnover in the course of microbial succession constrained by substrate and oxygen availability

Current challenge to increase sequestration of soil carbon (C) requires understanding the processes of C losses during microbial decomposition of diverse organic compounds. A tense competition between microbial groups for available soil organics results in a trade off between fast but less efficient or slow but more efficient metabolism of substrate. The proposed project Microheat considers that transformation of organic substrates in soil occurs in the course of multi-stage microbial succession through a sequence of decomposition stages. The duration, amplitude and dominating taxa of each successional stage as well as an efficiency of carbon utilization are dependent on substrate quality and amount and are restricted by oxygen availability. The methodological novelty and challenge of Microheat, is in estimation of the anaerobic soil volume fraction via application of X-ray CT to study the effect of oxygen diffusion constraints on C and energy use efficiency (CUE and EUE). The peculiarity of Microheat is in its conceptual view linking matter (CO2) and energy (heat) losses to microbial growth and to the range of enzyme-mediated reactions related to various stages of substrate decomposition. The Microheat project aims to relate an efficiency of microbial metabolism with heat and C losses in course of microbial succession during decomposition of organic compounds in soil. This will be done by a combination of kinetic approaches to relate matter and energy losses with 1) changes in dominating microbial populations, 2) microbial functional traits, and 3) turnover time of carbon sources. As a result, a variable CUE as a function of independently determined microbial traits will be suggested for carbon models considering dynamically changing fraction of anaerobic soil volume. The Microheat project will thus make a promising contribution to elucidating regulatory mechanisms of energy and matter turnover.


Dr. Steffen Schlüter , Dr. Evgenia Blagodatskaya , Dr. Thomas Reitz

Partners: University of Trier

Web: SoilSystems

Funding: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG
Project term: since 2019

New concepts for assessing soil structure turnover by structure labeling and analyses of biochemical gradients

Soil structure is the manifestation of the interactions of many biotic and abiotic agents in soil and controls many soil functions such as matter turnover, water retention, and the production of biomass. Soil structure has been identified to govern long-term carbon sequestration in soil via physical protection of soil organic matter against decay, therewith possessing a central role in the global carbon cycle. Soil structure is often considered static but actually changes due to bioturbation, wetting/drying, freezing/thawing and tillage activities. Yet, conceptual approaches to link soil structure turnover to organic matter decomposition are still in their infancy, mainly due to methodological shortcomings that impair meaningful estimates of soil structure turnover rates. The main objective of this project is to establish novel conceptual approaches to measure soil structure turnover under natural conditions. The first is based on structure labeling where soil aggregates are coated with small inert garnet particles and their fate is studied using X-ray microtomography (µCT). The speed at which randomization with respect to particle‒pore distances is achieved will be interpreted as turnover rate. The second is based on the detection of microscopic biochemical gradients. They are expected to form when soil structure turnover is slow, whereas fast soil structure turnover continuously changes diffusion pathways and redistributes constituents, thus preventing the formation of biogeochemical gradients. In this project we focus on imaging methods that provide a comprehensive in-situ view to undisturbed soil structure. Two-dimensional microscopic and microspectroscopic data (XPS, SEM-EDS, LA-IRMS) are merged with three-dimensional physical structure (µCT) through 2D-3D image registration in order to truly link 3D diffusion pathways to spatial gradients in element ratios, carbon oxidation states, and carbon isotope ratios. The proposed approaches will be tested in laboratory and field experiments to identify abiotic (wetting, freezing) and biotic (microbial activity, bioturbation) drivers of soil structure turnover. Long-term vegetation change experiments with known carbon turnover rates are revisited to estimate soil structure turnover from the magnitude of biochemical gradients. With this project we expect novel insights into the mechanisms of soil structure formation under natural conditions and how altered pore size domains and biochemical gradients are linked to the cycling of soil organic matter.


Dr. Steffen Schlüter , Prof. Dr. Eva Lehndorff, Prof. Dr. Robert Mikutta

Partner: University of Bayreuth, Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg

DASIM Funding: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG
Project term: 2016 - 2023

Denitrification in Agricultural Soils: Integrated control and Modelling at various scales

Denitrification, the process of nitrate reduction allowing microbes to sustain respiration under anaerobic conditions, is the key process returning reactive nitrogen as N2 to the atmosphere. The different reaction steps (NO3- -> NO2- -> NO -> N2O -> N2) are enzymatically mediated by a broad range of prokaryotes and some eukaryotes. Actively denitrifying communities in soil show distinct regulatory phenotypes (DRP) with characteristic controls on the single reaction steps and end-products. It is unresolved whether DRPs are anchored in the taxonomic composition of denitrifier communities and how environmental conditions shape them. Despite being intensively studied for more than 100 years, denitrification rates and emissions of its gaseous products can still not be satisfactorily predicted. While the impact of single environmental parameters is well understood, the complexity of the process itself with its intricate cellular regulation in response to highly variable factors in the soil matrix prevents robust prediction of gaseous emissions. Key parameters in soil are pO2, organic matter content and quality, pH and the microbial community structure, which in turn are affected by the soil structure, chemistry and soil-plant interactions. Here, we aim at the quantitative prediction of denitrification rates as a function of microscale soil structure, organic matter quality, DRPs and atmospheric boundary conditions. Combining state-of-the-art experimental and analytical tools (X-ray µCT, 15N tracing, NanoSIMS, micro-sensors, advanced flux detection, NMR spectroscopy, and molecular methods including next generation sequencing of functional gene transcripts), we will study denitrification processes at unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution. Improved numerical methods and computational power will allow to integrate results from the different groups and to develop denitrification models ranging from the microscale (phase 1) to the field/plot scale (phase 2).


Dr. Steffen Schlüter , Prof. Dr. Hans-Jörg Vogel


Soil-Plant Interaction

SPP Funding: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG
Project term: 2018 - 2024

Rhizosphere Spatiotemporal Organisation – a Key to Rhizosphere Functions (SPP 2089)

This Priority Programme aims at the identification of spatiotemporal patterns in the rhizosphere and at the explanation of the underlying mechanisms. The key concept of the programme consists of approaching the rhizosphere as a self-organised system. Self-organisation arises from a cascade of feedback loops between root, microbiome and soil. Emerging patterns in the rhizosphere cannot be understood from studying the components in isolation. This call invites proposals from appropriate disciplines such as rhizosphere research, soil chemistry, plant genomics and physiology, soil microbiology, soil physics, exudate analysis, image/pattern analysis and modelling.

Speaker: Prof. Dr. Doris Vetterlein

P2 - Z-project

Application of 15N and 13C in the central experimental platform to investigate spatial gradients in the rhizosphere in respect to uptake and release


Prof. Dr. Doris Vetterlein , Prof. Dr. Johanna Pausch

Partner: University of Bayreuth

Web: Z-project

P21 - Dynamics & Structure

Relevance of root growth and related soil structure formation for spatiotemporal patterns of chemical and biological properties and emergent system functions


Prof. Dr. Doris Vetterlein , Dr. Steffen Schlüter

Web: Dynamics and Structure


UFZ Project term: 2019 - 2021

Project: Agricultural and aquatic systems

The aim of the “Agricultural and aquatic systems” project is to record the development of these sensitive and complex systems with regard to climatic extremes in Germany. We want to predict as closely as possible the development of soil functions, agricultural productivity, as well as the water quality of river ecosystems for different climate scenarios.

Contact: Dr. Mareike Ließ , Prof. Dr. Hans-Jörg Vogel , Prof. Dr. Markus Weitere , Prof. Dr. Claudia Künzer

Partner: DLR

Web: Hi-Cam