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Dr Emma Jane Sayer

Profile summary

  • Visiting Informal Academic
  • Visiting Fellow
  • Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
  • School of Environment, Earth & Ecosystem Sciences
  • emma.sayer

Professional biography

I'm an ecosystem ecologist, which essentially means I'm interested in everything. My main focus is on plant-soil interactions and their role in ecosystem responses to change. I'm Lecturer in Ecology at the Lancaster Environment Centre, a Visiting Fellow at the OU's Department for Environment, Earth & Ecosystems and a STRI Research Associate.

My current research investigates the mechanisms involved in plant-soil interactions and their role in ecosystem functioning. I have the best of both worlds because I get to use state-of-the-art lab techniques and also work outdoors doing ‘classic’ field ecology. To study ecosystem functioning I use a broad range of techniques from different disciplines and combine robustly designed experiment with field observations. More about my main research project can be found here.

Previous research projects include: the importance of litterfall in tropical forest nutrient cycling; release of carbon by priming effects in tropical forest soils; microbial diversity in agricultural grasslands. 

I am also council member of the British Ecological Society (BES) and the Assistant Editor of the BES Bulletin. I am actively involved with various special interest groups and one of the organisers of 'Sex and Bugs and Rock 'n Roll', which aims to promote ecology at music festivals.


Research interests

  • The effects of climate change on plant-soil interactions
  • Multidisciplinary and scaling approaches in ecosystem ecology
  • (Tropical) forest carbon dynamics and nutrient cycling
  • Linking microbial processes to ecosystem functioning

New project:

FORESTPRIME - Predicting carbon release from forest soils through priming effects: a new approach to reconcile results across multiple scales
(ERC Starting Grant 2012)

Feedbacks between plants and soil under environmental change are likely to have a significant impact on ecosystem carbon cycling. Recent work has shown that increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations have enhanced tree growth in forests. However these increases in growth could change carbon cycling belowground and potentially cause ‘priming effects’, stimulating microbial degradation of soil organic matter and releasing carbon from the soil. 
Given that forest soils represent the largest terrestrial carbon pool, priming effects could cause a major release of CO2 to the atmosphere.
Despite their potential importance in ecosystem carbon dynamics under environmental change, the processes and mechanisms underlying priming effects are still poorly understood. This is in part due to the enormous disparities in the experimental scales and methods required to study microbial processes vs. ecosystem carbon dynamics and the difficulties in extrapolating the results of laboratory studies to the ecosystem level.
This project will provide the first comprehensive comparative dataset on priming effects across forests worldwide and aims to reconcile the experimental problems of scale using nested studies across multiple scales. The study design will explicitly test the validity of using measurements made at one scale to predict effects at another, with the ultimate aim of allowing the results from small-scale studies to be extrapolated to the ecosystem level. 

Teaching interests


Sex & Bugs & Rock 'n Roll: getting creative about public engagement (2014)
Sayer, Emma J.; Featherstone, Helen C.; Gosling, William D.; the BES Roadies, ; Bird, Frazer; Fawdon, Peter; Gunn, Leanne; Salmon, Kate and Dixon, Sophie
Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 29(2) (pp. 65-67)
Variable responses of lowland tropical forest nutrient status to fertilization and litter manipulation (2012)
Sayer, Emma J.; Wright, S. Joseph; Tanner, Edmund V. J.; Yavitt, Joseph B.; Harms, Kyle E.; Powers, Jennifer S.; Kaspari, Michael; Garcia, Milton N. and Turner, Benjamin L.
Ecosystems, 15(3) (pp. 387-400)
Potassium, phosphorus or nitrogen limit root allocation, tree growth, or litter production in a lowland tropical forest (2011)
Wright, S. Joseph; Yavitt, Joseph B.; Wurzburger, Nina; Turner, Benjamin L.; Tanner, Edmund V. J.; Sayer, Emma J; Santiago, Louis S.; Kaspari, Michael; Hedin, Lars O.; Harms, Kyle E.; Garcia , Milton N. and Corre, Marife D.
Ecology, 92(8) (pp. 1616-1625)
Soil carbon release enhanced by increased tropical forest litterfall (2011)
Sayer, Emma J.; Heard, Matthew S.; Grant, Helen K.; Marthews, Toby R. and Tanner, Edmund V. J.
Nature Climate Change, 1 (pp. 304-307)
Arthropod abundance and diversity in a lowland tropical forest floor in Panama: the role of habitat space vs. nutrient concentrations (2010-03-01)
Sayer, Emma J.; Sutcliffe, Laura M. E.; Ross, Rebecca I. C. and Tanner, Edmund V. J.
Biotropica, 42(2) (pp. 194-200)
A new approach to trenching experiments for measuring root-rhizosphere respiration in a lowland tropical forest (2010)
Sayer, E. J. and Tanner, E. V. J.
Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 42(2) (pp. 347-352)
Experimental investigation of the importance of litterfall in lowland semi-evergreen tropical forest nutrient cycling (2010)
Sayer, Emma J. and Tanner, Edmund V. J.
Journal of Ecology, 98(5) (pp. 1052-1062)
Increased litterfall in tropical forests boosts the transfer of soil CO2 to the atmosphere (2007-12)
Sayer, Emma J.; Powers, Jennifer S. and Tanner, Edmund V. J.
PLoS ONE, 2, Article e1299(12)
Effects of litter manipulation on early-stage decomposition and meso-arthropod abundance in a tropical moist forest (2006-07)
Sayer, E. J.; Tanner, E. V. J. and Lacey, A. L.
Forest Ecology and Management, 229(1-3) (pp. 285-293)
Using experimental manipulation to assess the roles of leaf litter in the functioning of forest ecosystems (2006-02-01)
Sayer, Emma J.
Biological Reviews, 81(1) (pp. 1-31)
Increased Litterfall Changes Fine Root Distribution In a Moist Tropical Forest (2006)
Sayer, Emma J; Tanner, EVJ and Cheesman, AW
Plant and Soil, 281(1-2) (pp. 5-13)
The role of tree size in the leafing phenology of a seasonally dry tropical forest in Belize, Central America (2003)
Sayer, E. J. and Newbery, D. M.
Journal of Tropical Ecology, 19(5) (pp. 539-543)