Dr Kirsty Matthews Nicholass

Dr Kirsty Matthews Nicholass

Post-Doctoral Research Fellow - Evolutionary Ecology

School of Biological and Marine Sciences (Faculty of Science and Engineering)



I am a molecular ecologist interested in developing our understanding of interactions above and belowground between plants, microbes, fungi, and invertebrates by employing a range of field-based, lab-based and experimental approaches. My main research focus is centred on grassland ecology.

Throughout my early career in research I have learned a variety of approaches that allow me to take a holistic approach to my research and experimental design. This includes; international field work and collaborative research, metabarcoding and library preparation, CRISPR-cas9 genome editing, inorganic and analytical chemistry and behavioral assays . 

In my position at the University of Plymouth I will be researching the ecological role and evolutionary origin of psychedelic compounds in nature on the Leverulme Trust funded project 'Wherefore the magic?' in Dr Jonathon Ellis' research group. Very little is known about fungal-antagonist interactions in general and the role of fungal SMs is largely speculative. While Psilocybin producing fungi are a provocative and unorthodox study oraganism, their attractiveness in this project stems from the structural similarity between psilocybin and the animal neurotransmitter serotin which raises interesting questions surrounding its evolutionary origin.

To close the knowledge gap about the evolutionary role of psilocybin, and elucidate fungus-animal interactions in general, the application of eco-evo concepts, behavioural experiments, molecular and transgenic tools (CRISPR-cas9) will be applied. 


Ph.D - Environmental Sciences, University of Essex (2016-2020)

B.Sc - Biological Sciences, University of Essex (2013-2016)



Teaching interests

Lecturer in Plants and Ecosystems January 2020 - June 2020

Delivered lectures, field, lab and computer based practicals for 1st year BSc Biological science students at the University of Essex. 



Research interests

My research interests include | grassland ecology | biodiversity | molecular ecology | molecular microbial ecology | soil biodiversity | ecosystem functioning | mycology | evolution | sustainability

Other research

I am currently leading on a Seal Hayne funded project 'High-throughput screening to assist the genetic improvement of diverse fungi relevant to agriculture.' The aim of this project is to design and test a novel screening approach in fungi to detect and separate gene edited mutants based on separation by fluorescence and spore size. More broadly, this project enhances the molecular toolbox to aid reverse genetics in fungi by developing a tool universal to all fungi and thus holds the potential to elucidate the role fungi might play in agriculture and disease, identify target genes which may improve yield, enable the full characterisation of the metabolite profile for multiple fungal species which could reveal potential metabolites to be used in the control of agricultural disease, and lastly will allow for the exploration of eco-evolutionary fungal-animal and fungal-plant interactions. 

Previously, my focus lied on understanding the mediation of plant species co-existence by soil-borne microbes (in particular, those associated with the mycobiome) in the diverse grassland ecosystems across much of Europe. This predominantly included characterisation of host-specific microbiomes using next-generation sequencing technology and subsequent ecoinformatic analysis using modelling approaches. The insights from some of these studies were used to develop more sustainable agro-ecosystems, both in Europe, and in SE Asia concerning the cultivation of oil palm. The overall focus of this research was centred on biodiversity, sustainability and ecosystem functioning.

BEFTA understory vegetation project:





Fell, S.C., Carrivick, J.L., Cauvy-Fraunié, S., Crespo-Pérez, V., Hood, E., Randall, K.C., Nicholass, K.J.M., Tiegs, S.D., Dumbrell, A.J. and Brown, L.E., 2021. Fungal decomposition of river organic matter accelerated by decreasing glacier cover. Nature Climate Change, 11(4), pp.349-353.

Luke, S.H., Advento, A.D., Aryawan, A.A.K., Adhy, D.N., Ashton-Butt, A., Barclay, H., Dewi, J.P., Drewer, J., Nicholass, K.J.M.,  Dumbrell, A.J., Eycott, A.E. and Harianja, M.F., 2020. Managing oil palm plantations more sustainably: large-scale experiments within the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Tropical Agriculture (BEFTA) Programme. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, 2, p.75.

Clark, D.R., Ferguson, R.M., Harris, D.N., Matthews Nicholass, K.J., Prentice, H.J., Randall, K.C., Randell, L., Warren, S.L. and Dumbrell, A.J., 2018. Streams of data from drops of water: 21st century molecular microbial ecology. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water, 5(4), p.e1280.

Bani, A., Borruso, L., Matthews Nicholass, K.J., Bardelli, T., Polo, A., Pioli, S., Gómez-Brandón, M., Insam, H., Dumbrell, A.J. and Brusetti, L., 2019. Site-specific microbial decomposer communities do not imply faster decomposition: results from a litter transplantation experiment. Microorganisms, 7(9), p.349.