Interactions between crops, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and atmospheric CO2

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Biology

Abstract

Since the post-war Green Revolution, agricultural productivity has increased dramatically in terms of crop yield and predictability. This has been dependent on the development and application of novel pesticides and nitrogen- and phosphorus-based fertilisers, coupled to advances in plant breeding and genetic technologies. Traditionally, the development of crop breeding programs has rarely considered the ability of crops to establish associations with mycorrhizal fungi (soil fungi that engage in a reciprocol exchange of nutrients for plant-fixed photosynthates in plant roots) as a main desirable trait.

As such, several studies have shown that the colonisation of roots by mycorrhiza varies significantly and continuously among cultivars in cereals. Even antagonistic breeding for such a character seems to occur in some cases, in which selection for increased disease resistance has led to varieties with reduced ability to form mycorrhizal associations. In addition, regular tillage of the soil disrupts mycorrhizal networks and reduces the extent of soil colonisation by mycorrhizal fungi. The intensive use of agrochemicals in agriculture has compounded this impaired mycorrhizal functioning, which further increases crop dependence on fungicide and fertilizer inputs to sustain yields in a positive feedback loop.

In the last 15 years key crop yields have plateaued. With an increasing human population, depletion of global rock-phosphorus and growing energy prices making fertiliser production unsustainable, Europe is now facing a food security crisis, further compounded by the environmental challenges presented by global climate change. This crisis requires new and innovative technologies developed from a variety of scientific disciplines, many of which already exist. In recent times there has been much interest in exploiting mycorrhizal associations for agronomic benefit such as enhanced access to existing soil P pools, enhanced disease resistance and drought tolerance. However, given the IPCC predictions for future increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, it is vital that we understand how these critically important symbioses will function under such a CO2-rich atmosphere.

Knowledge exchange (KE) between the academic research community and industry colleagues is essential to mitigate these challenges. By quantifying the functionality and efficiency of key European cereal crop-mycorrhiza interactions and their responses to atmospheric CO2 concentration, my research will address the critical and fundamental knowledge gaps in our understanding of crop-mycorrhizosphere interactions and the effects of future climate change on their interactions. Further, by working closely with my industrial partner, Dr Richard Summers (RAGT seeds), my research will bridge the divide between academic research and the agricultural industry, providing critical data and solutions to help mitigate the challenges posed by increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration on food security.

Technical Summary

Since the post-war Green Revolution, agricultural productivity has increased dramatically in terms of crop yield and predictability. This has been largely dependent on the development and application of novel pesticides and nitrogen- and phosphorus-based fertilisers, coupled to advances in plant breeding and genetic technologies.
In the last 15 years however, wheat yields have plateaued and this is replicated across many key crop species. With an ever- increasing human population and depletion of global rock- phosphorus and growing energy prices making fertiliser production unsustainable, Europe is now facing a food security crisis. Solving this crisis requires new and innovative technologies developed from a variety of scientific disciplines. Currently, the mechanisms we rely on to ensure security of our food supply remain unchanged with plant science research focussing on the symptoms, rather than the root causes of the problem.

Many key crop species have been shown to be able to form mutualistic symbioses with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) and this is leading to the development of novel approaches in crop breeding and agricultural practices, encouraging the formation of mycorrhizal associations and utilisation of previously plant-inaccessible phosphorus pools. My fundamental research on wild species has shown that the functional efficiency of the exchange of carbon-for nutrients is affected by atmospheric CO2 (a[CO2]). If similar responses to a[CO2] are to be expected in domestic crops as I have demonstrated in other plants, the benefits brought by changing agricultural practices with the development of mycorrhiza-friendly crops and rhizosphere-centric agricultural practises could be drastic. This represents a critical knowledge gap with immediate and urgent potential for translation.
My project will address this major gap in our knowledge of crop-mycorrhiza interactions and contribute directly to the development of new, efficient crops in the future.

Planned Impact

A key component of my fellowship project is the translation of my science into useable agri-solutions which will be achieved readily through collaboration with my industrial partner, RAGT Seeds.
In order to facilitate this process, and for other relevant plant science research at the University of Sheffield, I plan to develop an agri-tech 'innovation pipeline', generating awareness, opportunity and support for collaborations between scientists and industrial partners thereby promoting translational plant science. By developing a structured pipeline by which fundamental research is translated from lab bench to usable agri-solutions, my project will increase impact of BBSRC-funded science within Sheffield; providing the framework by which other faculties and universities can increase their own KE.

Objectives:
O1: Generate and maintain a user-searchable KE portal identifying the areas and themes of plant science research, key innovations in technology and their potential applications to agri-tech sector.
O2: Identify existing and potential industrial links and compile a list of the agri-tech "Grand challenges" to parameterise the 'innovation pipeline'.
O3: Use the 'innovation pipeline' to facilitate a step-change in the level of collaborative activity between plant scientists and industry end-users.
O4: Raise the profile of successful industrial applications of research at the University of Sheffield with the wider research and development community.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description We have discovered that mycorrhizal associations in wheat are mutualistic in terms of carbon-for-nutrient exchange but that the degree to which the crop benefits from such associations is dependant on cultivar. There are also clear cultivar-specific responses to elevated CO2 concentrations that do not translate directly into improved nutrient uptake via fungal partners.
Exploitation Route potential for use in inoculant production, crop breeding and land management strategies by farmers.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

 
Description How did the evolution of plants, microbial symbionts and terrestrial nutrient cycles change Earth's long-term climate?
Amount £617,796 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S009663/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2019 
End 05/2022
 
Description LOCKED UP: The role of biotic and abiotic interactions in the stabilisation and persistence of soil organic carbon
Amount £611,642 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S004963/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2019 
End 02/2023
 
Description Philip Leverhulme Prize 2017
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2018 
End 01/2021
 
Description Rank Prize Funds New Investigator Award
Amount £20,000 (GBP)
Organisation Rank Prize Funds 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2017 
 
Description Standard grant
Amount £587,100 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/N00941X/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2016 
End 06/2019
 
Description White Rose PhD Studentship Training Network
Amount £65,000 (GBP)
Organisation White Rose University Consortium 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2016 
End 09/2019
 
Title Soil binding assay 
Description Allows users to determine capacity of root exudates to bind soil, form aggregates etc. 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Publication: Akhtar J, Galloway AF, Nikolopoulos G, Field KJ, Knox JP. (2018) A quantitative method for the high throughput screening for the soil adhesion properties of plant and microbial polysaccharides and exudates. Plant and Soil 1-2: 57-65 doi: 10.1007/s11104-018-3670-1 
 
Description Collaboration with Lucy James (ADAS) 
Organisation ADAS
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Wrote a successful N8 pump priming funding bid
Collaborator Contribution QTL analysis
Impact Awaiting results
Start Year 2018
 
Description BBC Radio 4: The Today Programme (18.12.17) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact BBC Radio 4: The Today Programme (18.12.17) Interview with John Humphrys regarding research paper publication (Mills et al., 2018).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description BBC Radio Wales interview: State of the World's Fungi response 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact BBC Radio Wales interview (Good Morning Wales), response to publicaiton of Kew's State of the World's Fungi.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description BBC Radio Wales: Good Morning Wales (18.12.17) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact BBC Radio Wales: Good Morning Wales (18.12.17) Interview with Rachael Garside about research paper publication (Mills et al., 2018).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Faculty of Biological Sciences, Excellence with Impact event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Supporters
Results and Impact Presented my work on crops and mycorrhizas, produced a banner and manned a stand
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Public lecture for "More than a mushroom" event, Light Night, Leeds 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public lecture on how fungi helped the Earth get green and future role in sustainability, invited as part of Kew's Grow Wild activities "More than a mushroom" event at University of Leeds for Leeds City Light Ninght (4-6.10.2018)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Public lecture on fungi at Eden Project 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public lecture on significance of "invisible" fungi to general public, e.g. agriculture, evolution, climate
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018