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Soil and root health research expertise attracts Farming Future’s funding

01 March 2024

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John Innes Centre researchers will work alongside farmers and agritech partners in a £1m research collaboration to boost crop productivity by unearthing the secrets of soil and root health.

The new project, called Thriving Roots Underpinning Total soil Health (TRUTH) is funded by Farming Futures part of Defra and Innovate UK’s Farming Innovation Programme (FIP).

The three-year project involves setting up a research platform that allows farmers to monitor and evaluate soil/root interactions more accurately, particularly plant control of soil microbiome and the relation between root and soil structure. This data will allow the partnership to explore the viability of an innovative sensor that can detect the biological “signature” of soil.

The farmer-led collaboration hopes to test and confirm desirable traits that rely on the interactions between crops and soil, and lead to a better understanding of these interactions. The datasets resulting from the soil microbiome and root and soil structure analysis will enable the further development of the soil sensor as a tool for farmers to monitor key soil health parameters.

The John Innes Centre will provide heritage wheat varieties from the Watkins landrace collection held by the Germplasm Resources Unit, selected for their capacity to control microbial transformation of nitrogen in soil and enhance the plant uptake and use efficiency.

The selection of these landraces – locally adapted lines collected from around the globe – has been based on the results of the ongoing Wish-Roots project led by Dr Maria Hernandez-Soriano at the John Innes Centre.

Throughout the new project, researchers will receive soil samples from the farmer led TRUTH trials to carry out sequencing, analysis and provide a microbiome fingerprint for the different trials.

“We are delighted to be part of the TRUTH programme, which helps us to further research in collaboration with farmers and to build on the success of the Wish-Roots project,” said Dr Hernandez-Soriano.

“Healthy soil plays such a significant role in food production, climate change mitigation and maintaining biodiversity. Yet despite this there are few tools available to farmers to monitor and quantify soil health and root development. Through this project we hope to show how interventions with the right tools and expertise can affect crop yield and quality.”

Programme partners include BOFIN, a farmer network that leads on farmer engagement including trials, PES Technologies which will develop soil sensor technology, CHAP Agri-Tech centre that manages the project, and the University of Nottingham which will manage soil/root health assessment.

Dr Simon Griffiths, the Delivering Sustainable Wheat Programme Leader, at the John Innes Centre said: “This welcome funding is further evidence of the valuable genetic diversity contained within the Watkins landraces collection, a nationally important capability managed by the John Innes Centre. A century after it was assembled from around the globe this genetic treasure trove is helping to future proof agriculture.”

The award is one of 24 projects awarded a share of £12.2m by Defra’s and Innovate UK’s Farming Innovation Programme. Among these are the British Sugar/John Innes Centre project to use gene editing technologies to protect the sugar beet crop against virus yellow disease.

This article was originally published by our partner, the John Innes Centre, on their website here.

Photo by: John Innes Centre

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