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Wheat-soil interaction offers route to sustainable agriculture

13 April 2022

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Understanding how wheat roots can fine tune the activity of soil microbes for the benefit of agriculture is the focus of an international collaboration starting this spring. 

The WISH-Roots Consortium, funded through the European Joint Programme, EJP Soil, and by BBSRC in the UK, brings together seven international partners, including microbiological, plant and soil scientists.  

The project will be co-ordinated by a team at the John Innes Centre, and will conduct field trials in six countries to identify the potential beneficial effects of wheat cultivation on soil health. The field trials will study twenty lines of wheat for two consecutive seasons at six different locations across the world. In parallel, wheat germplasm will be explored at the unique phenotyping facilities at Forschungszentrum Julich in Germany.  

Dr Maria Hernandez-Soriano, a postdoctoral scientist at the John Innes Centre said: “Soil provides 99 percent of the food consumed by humanity. It is not an infinite resource and it is being lost at an alarming rate. We are looking at how to preserve and improve it in crop systems. Healthier soil supports healthier plants which result in healthier people.” 

Silvio Salvi, a consortium partner from the University of Bologna said: “I see agricultural soil and crop plants, especially their roots as a unit; as two linked entities which have been evolving together since the beginning of agriculture. It makes sense to consider this when trying to modify one of the two parts for the sake of our crop production systems and our environment.” 

WISH-Roots will be at the forefront of engineering the rhizosphere, the soil zone around the plant root. The project will investigate the idea that wheat roots can fine tune soil health, that is the capacity of soils to supply nutrients and water for plants, to sustain other forms of life. 

Consortium partner Michael Kidson from ARC-LNR South Africa said: “Breeding wheat for natural root traits to control naturally occurring microbial processes is key for sustainable food production.” 

The project hopes to identify wheat traits that support a more sustainable use of land for farmers improving soil microbial biodiversity, nitrogen cycling, and soil structure. 

It will provide genetic resources and predictive models to breeders and other stakeholders for the introduction of beneficial root traits in wheat production.  

The consortium will explore the bread wheat germplasm at the John Innes Centre and the global durum genomic resources at the University of Bologna to identify traits related to root anatomy and secretions. 

The expected increase in world population will require food production to increase by 70 percent by 2050, with production of cereals needed to increase by 50 percent. At the same time our ability to increase food production will be restricted because nearly two-thirds of agricultural land has been degraded over the past 50 years and every year 12 million hectares of agricultural land are lost due to soil degradation. This project will explore new strategies for sustainable farming that can support and enhance soil health, particularly increasing the efficiency of chemical fertilizers and supporting soil biodiversity.  

Modern wheat varieties are the result of intensive breeding to improve traits like yield, with little attention paid to their roots, and the knock-on impact on the soil. The WISH-Roots project will attempt to restore some natural traits that can support sustainable wheat production. 

The project has been designed to enable exchange of knowledge and expertise between participants and a strong public and stakeholder interaction.

 About EJP-SOIL 

Building an integrated research community on agricultural soils, EJP SOIL is a European Joint Programme Cofund on Agricultural Soil Management contributing to key societal challenges including climate change, water and future food security.   

The objectives are to develop knowledge, tools and an integrated research community to foster climate-smart sustainable agricultural soil management that: 

  • Allows sustainable food production 
  • Sustains soil biodiversity
  • Sustains soil functions that preserves ecosystem services   
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