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Telluric microorganisms and the carbon cycle

Lisa Wingate is a research scientist at INRA’s Physical and Functional Ecology of the Environment Research Unit (EPHYSE) in Bordeaux. She received a grant from the European Research Council (ERC) in 2013 for her promising work on the role of microorganisms in the soil in atmospheric carbon flow on a global scale, in particular through carbonic anhydrase, an enzyme she has studied and characterised.

Lisa Wingate. © INRA, Inra
By Emmanuelle Manck, translated by Inge Laino
Updated on 01/07/2019
Published on 12/18/2013

« A wonderful opportunity to have your own team »

Since her secondary school days in Edinburgh, Scotland, Ms Wingate took a keen interest in geography and environmental issues.  After she landed her first job, she decided to take evening courses in chemistry and biology “to better understand the world in which [we live]”. This decisive step is what led her to enrol in a university course in environmental science at the University of Edinburgh, which she followed through to the doctorate level, earning a PhD in photosynthesis  and respiration flows in spruce plantations. During her first post-doc between 2003 and 2005, she became interested in the impact of droughts on the biological functioning of a specific Mediterranean ecosystem: cork oak plantations in southern Portugal. There, Dr Wingate characterised the flow of carbon dioxide in soil and studied the enzymatic reactions involved.

The composition of tree rings, a more efficient dating system

In 2007, Dr Wingate joined forces with INRA’s Ephyse research unit in Bordeaux. Her team in Scotland had already had several opportunities to work with the unit, within the framework of the MIST project (Modelling Isotopic Signals in Trees), which focused on the isotopic composition of carbon and oxygen in tree ring cellulose. Tree rings are the concentric circles that form in trunks at each annual growth spurt. Like ice cores used to determine climate history, Dr Wingate and her host team used the signals recorded in forests to reconstruct the biological functioning of trees in specific climatic conditions. In 2008 and 2009, she received the INRA “Innovative Project” award and a European “Marie Curie” research fellowship, allowing her to pursue the work already underway in Portugal on CO2 flows in soil. In 2011, a five-year grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) took her to England’s prestigious Cambridge University. One year later, in 2012, she returned to France with a permanent position at INRA thanks to the “INRA blanc” recruitment scheme.

Since then, Dr Wingate has been focusing her studies on chemical variations in tree rings in relation to climatic stress (eg rain, drought). “Because of global warming, the duration of growth periods in trees in changing: it is starting earlier in the spring and ending later in the autumn. By carefully observing density and the isotopic composition of tree rings, I can decipher exactly when, give or take 10-12 days, the wood was formed, and what the climatic conditions were.”  Not only does this research further our understanding of how trees adapt to climatic stress, but it also boosts the reliability of modelling and forecasts.

An enzyme hastens gas exchanges in soil

The project that earned Dr Wingate the ERC grant follows on from her previous work on the enzymatic activity of soil and its microorganisms: “The enzyme I focus on, carbonic anhydrase, is one of the oldest known to man, an essential ingredient of life, and a constant in all soil populations. It plays a key role in all photosynthesis and respiration processes, which is to assist rapid inter-conversion of carbon dioxide into bicarbonate. My project explores and seeks to understand the regulation mechanisms of this enzyme in different ecosystems and experimental conditions, and to further our knowledge of the carbon cycle on a planetary scale”. Dr Wingate is “delighted” to have financing for this project, “a wonderful opportunity for a young researcher to have (her) own team”. She is well aware, however, that her work is cut out for her over the next five years.

Scientific contact(s):

  • Lisa Wingate EPHYSE Physical and Functional Ecology of the Environment

Mini CV
  • Scottish
  • 41 years old, 3 children
  • PhD obtained from The University of Edinburgh in 2004
  • Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship based at INRA, EPHYSE 2009,
  • Natural Environment Research Council Advanced Fellowship based at The University of Cambridge 2010
  • Research Scientist at INRA, EPHYSE 2012
  • Loves to cook, talk and dance, occasionally at the same time....

ERC Starting Grants

ERC Starting Grants are reserved for young scientists with 2 to 7 years of research experience after gaining their PhD, and can reach a value of €2 million.  Based on the sole criterion of excellence, this funding programme is designed to support exploratory, innovative and ambitious research projects that will open the way to new scientific and technological advances.
For more information on the 2013 grant recipients.