Current Research Themes
Biodiversity Footprints in Anthropic/genic Ecosystems
One of our research themes focused on the study of soil biodiversity signatures associated with ecosystems which were historically highly manipulated by humans, the denominated anthropic ecosystems, in particular, the Amazonian Dark Earths (ADEs: please see our network webpage). In this project, we are also collaborating with Prof. George Brown at EMBRAPA-Forestry, Brazil. Prof Brown crucially acted as a conduit to the established network of interdisciplinary researchers interested in the human-environment dimension which range from anthropologists, archaeologists, geochemists, radiocarbon dating laboratories and ecologists. This group has been providing an enormously rich knowledge base in relation to ADEs, facilitating access to and sampling at the locations and of the characterization of several discrete archaeological settlements.
Under this theme, we have secured funding for establishing several projects that differ in scope but also complement each other:
“A Worm’s Trail: Implementing a collaborative network for the study of Historical and Recent Land Use and Soil Management in Neotropical Rainforests” (Grant NE/M017656/1)
The main objective of the project is to establish a long-term collaborative network between Cardiff University and EMBRAPA in order to gain knowledge about the functioning and potential role of soil ecosystem engineers, organic matter and nutrients to Amazon Dark Earth (ADE) formation; this novel approach will aid in understanding the origin and sustainable management of these soils as well as other highly weathered acidic soils under humid tropical conditions.
The archaeological study of pre-Columbian people of the Amazon Basin has revealed sophisticated ecosystem modifications Notwithstanding the absence of historical written records, the biological evidence of these practices remains in the remarkable soils referred to as Amazonian ‘dark earths’ (ADEs), or “Terra Preta do Indio”, produced by these ancient civilisations to promote highly enriched environment. With increasing global demand for food, energy and carbon, it is crucial to understand and learn from past land management systems. We can also learn from the influence of these historical practices on the associated biodiversity in order to appropriately manage the current and plan the future land uses. This understanding is essential for both economic and environmental sustainability, and to provide for the needs and aspirations of current and future generations, while simultaneously conserving the ecological fidelity of the resource base on which they depend. This is particularly important with respect to soils and their intrinsic and diverse living organisms, because they sustain plant production (thus, they are at the base of the human food production chain), and have important consequences for water quality and availability. Furthermore, soils are a vast storehouse for biodiversity including many invertebrate species that contribute a number of essential ecosystem services, although most of these species remain mostly unknown, unseen and disregarded. By promoting the interdisciplinary connection between anthropology/archaeology, soil ecology and genomics, we will be able propose to integrate and harness the research expertise of internationally renowned scientists to investigate both the relationship of ADEs to the associated extant biodiversity, reveal details of past and current anthropogenic impact on the natural surroundings, as well as new clues regarding settlement dynamics over a large part of Brazil. Therefore, this project’s intention is to contribute to the knowledge of soil animal biodiversity and its relationship with soil fertility and land use changes in a mega-diverse biome (Amazonia). Our objectives will be accomplished by:
1. Assessing the current soil biodiversity assemblages to gain knowledge about the functioning and potential role of soil ecosystem engineers, organic matter and nutrients to the formation of these extremely fertile soils; this novel approach will aid in understanding the origin and sustainable management of ADEs as well as highly weathered and acid soils under humid tropical conditions.
2. Using DNA barcoding to describe the diversity of the ecosystem engineer community associated with the past and recent settlements throughout the Amazonian Basin.
3. Using genomics of a peregrine species closely related with human landscape domestication to mirror the human exchanges and flow among the Neotropical rainforest associated with the migration of Amazonian Indians.
Metazoans Living on a Volcanic Edge
Another sphere of our work, covers studies on the fascinating animals living on, or in close proximity with extreme environments of geogenic origin, such the ones found in geothermal fields. In 2013, Luis Cunha, Armindo Rodrigues, Prof. Morgan (deceased) and Prof. Peter Kille secured a grant from FCT to support Luis Cunha PhD studies and develop a project using earthworms as animals model under this conspicuous environment. Later this work was followed by a NERC research grant in order to extend some unanswered questions. The project entitled “Stress in a hot place” was seen as an attractive project and was successfully funded in 2013 (NE/I026022/1):
“Stress in a hot place: Characterising the ecogenomics of a pantropical sentinel inhabiting multi-stressor volcanic soils” (Grant NE/I026022/1)
“Understanding of how any metazoan organism tolerates an extreme environment comprised of multiple stressors may help to predict the impacts of current and future multifaceted global change on biodiversity and ecological function. Active volcanic soils represent extreme environments with unique features: elevated metal-ion concentrations, constant degassing over a wide area, and high temperature. Elevated soil temperature, as well as low O2, high CO2, and acidified soil are inhospitable challenges to the resident biota. The present proposal will derive a mechanistic understanding of the adaptation of an ecologically-relevant, ecosytem engineering, soil-dwelling invasive earthworm species (Amynthas gracilis) to cocktails of physico-chemical stressors of natural origin. Furthermore, the observations on this metazoan life-form with extremophile traits will have applications in the bioeconomy (biotechnology, agriculture and vermicomposting), medicine (models for anoxia & hypercapnia), and environmental management (ecotoxicology, risk assessment, land reclamation).”
At the present moment, we have some exciting results in the pipeline waiting to be published.
During Luis Cunha period associated with Cardiff University he was also able to establish strong collaborative links that have led to the development of new research proposals and innovative science ideas, in particular, the collaboration with Dr. Dave Spurgeon (Centre for Ecology & Hydrology), Prof. Mark Hodson (York University), but also within my own School with Profs Mike Bruford, Kille, Weightman and Dr. Pablo Orozco-terWengel. Old overseas collaboration links were also refreshed, in particular with Prof. Rafael Montiel (LANGEBIO, Mexico), together we were able to assemble and describe the genome of an important entomopathogenic nematode. Also sourced in a strong collaboration with my Mexican partners, in particular with Dr. Barois (INECOL, Mexico), I was able to describe the associated microbiomes of the earthworms living in the geothermal field. I am also starting to collaborate with Prof. Barbara Plytycz (Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland) and Prof. Laszlo Molnar (University of Pecs, Hungary) in a fascinating subject concerning the evolution of the neural-immune axis as exemplified by cerebral and caudal regeneration in earthworms.
2018: Luis Cunha as PI of an FCT Scientific Employment Stimulus entitled “Dirty Footprints”: Soil Biodiversity Composition and Functions in Historical Anthropogenic Ecosystems” (~€230,000).
2017: Luis Cunha as Co-I in an STFC research grant ST/P003281/1 entitled “Integrating remote sensing and ground-based spectral analysis to investigate biodiversity of archaeological sites in Amazonia” (£30,986).
2016: Luis Cunha as PI of a PacBio SMRT grant with a project entitled “Untangling the Volcanic Earthworm Genome”. This project was successfully funded by a crowdsourcing campaign ($5,237). https://doi.org/10.18258/6890
2015: Luis Cunha as Co-I in a Beamtime grant SP11632 at Diamond Synchrotron funded by STFC, entitled “Ligand-binding speciation of amorphous calcium carbonate and associated Zn and Sr in earthworms living under an extreme environment of volcanic origin” (£120,000).
2015: Luis Cunha as Fellow of a Marie Curie Global Fellowship H2020-MSCA-IF-2014 – “HookaWorm”- Grant Number 660378 (£209,279).
2015: Luis Cunha as Co-I in NERC-IOF Grant NE/M017656/1 entitled “Tracking Historical and Recent Human Settlement, Land use & Migration in Neotropical Rainforests using Ecosystem Engineers” (£269,691).
2015: Luis Cunha as Co-I in NERC-DIR Grant NE/M017656/1 entitled “A Worm’s Trail: Implementing a collaborative network for the study of Historical and Recent Land Use and Soil Management in Neotropical Rainforests” (£37,718).
2011: Luis Cunha as Co-I researcher of a standard NERC Grant NE/I026022/1 entitled “Stress in a hot place: Characterising the ecogenomics of a pantropical sentinel inhabiting multi-stressor volcanic soils” (£380,000).
2011: Luis Cunha as Co-I of a Grant PTDC/AAC-AMB/115713/2009 funded by Portuguese Science Foundation: Research Project entitled “An Azorean furnace of evolution: honing molecular-genetic tools for phylogeography and ecotoxicogenomics in a pantropical sentinel inhabiting multi-stressor volcanic soil” (€120,000).
2010: Luis Cunha as PI of Grant M3.2.4/I/003A/2010 funded by the Regional Government of Azores, for the organization of the Scientific Meeting “A volcanic furnace of Evolution” (€4,740).
Check here for some research opportunities