Researchers benefit from funding initiatives to protect soils and safeguard global food security

Researchers benefit from funding initiatives to protect soils and safeguard global food security

A University of Aberdeen led consortium has received £1.4 million in new funding to explore how plants manipulate soils to extract more water and nutrients, it has been announced today (Monday October 13).

Soil is fundamental to our life support system, providing food, storing and filtering water, cycling nutrients and providing a habitat for many species. It is at the heart of our interaction with the environment and central to the responsible management of our planet. The world will need to produce 50% more food by 2030 to feed a growing world population and soil science is crucial to meeting this challenge.

Aberdeen will lead one of four projects, with combined funding of £5 million, supported by a BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) led initiative known as SARISA (Soils and Rhizosphere Interactions for Sustainable Agri-ecosystems).

Researchers have been funded to investigate the interactions between soil and plant roots to find more sustainable crops. SARISA was developed with NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) under the Global Food Security (GFS) programme.

The University of Aberdeen will work with the University of Southampton, University of Dundee and the James Hutton Institute on the project. It is one of the first projects involving all of the partners in the Scottish Food Security Alliance Crops, which was setup to meet the challenges on crop production imposed by changing climates and increasing pressures on land and natural resources.They will focus on the thin interface of soil that develops at the surface of roots and is termed the rhizosphere.

Professor Paul Hallett from the University of Aberdeen said: “We are investigating what traits are needed in plant roots to physically manipulate this rhizosphere zone to capture the most water and nutrients, and also improve the sustainability of the soil itself.

“The next generation of crops need to extract nutrients and water more effectively to deal with decreasing reserves, increasing costs and a rising population. We believe there is considerable untapped potential to improve root traits to not only manipulate soils to capture resources more efficiently but also to protect soils from degradation.

“At Aberdeen we have developed unique physical testing approaches that allow the mechanisms involved in rhizosphere formation to be unravelled and quantified. The University of Southampton team will use this knowledge to improve models of water and nutrient transport to roots. They also have amazing capacity to visualise roots in soil using X-Ray computed tomography, so we can see what root traits do to soils.

“Our partners in the Scottish Food Security Alliance Crops , the University of Dundee and the James Hutton Institute, provide expertise on how roots interact with soils and will provide root trait mutants.”

NERC’s Chief Executive, Professor Duncan Wingham said: “Soil is central to the UK economy, generating an annual income of £5.3 billion, and providing many essential ecosystem services. But erosion, pollution and nutrient degradation are damaging this vital resource, threatening its ability to provide food and water security as well as climate mitigation. The outcomes of these initiatives will help us to manage and use this resource more responsibly into the future for the benefit of all society.”

Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC Executive Director of Science, said: "Soil research is an area of strategic importance for BBSRC, NERC and all the Global Food Security programme partners, particularly in relation to the 'sustainable enhancement' of agriculture. These initiatives are great examples of UK public funders working in partnership through GFS to support excellent interdisciplinary research in this area.”

"Good management of land and soils is vital to maintain soil health, nutrient cycling and biodiversity - essential to help provide enough food for a growing global population while protecting ecosystems in the wider environment and the other benefits they provide."