Can soil microbial diversity mitigate water stress and maintain crop yield in agricultural systems?

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Biology


Modern agriculture is subject to increasing regulatory pressure on the use of fertilisers and crop protection products, and economic pressure to maintain crop yields. In addition, models predict significant changes in the pattern of rainfall in the UK, including a reduction in summer precipitation of up to 40%, and an increase the number of extreme rainfall events. It is critical that we understand the mechanisms underpinning the agricultural ecosystem response to this change in rainfall pattern, and the effect this has on water stress in crops, and ultimately on crop yield. This project makes a novel link between two research leaders, one an expert in the analysis of community ecology of soil microbes using cutting edge molecular techniques, and the other a leader in the biogeochemistry of soil water and nutrient cycling. This expertise will be brought together to gain a timely understanding of the interactions between soil biodiversity and chemistry, change in precipitation patterns and crop yield.

Objectives: The overarching aim is to determine how microbial diversity interacts with precipitation patterns of drought and re-wetting to influence water stress in wheat crops and nitrate retention in a nitrate vulnerable zone (NVZ). Recent evidence suggests that prolonged drought with extreme rainfall events has a profound effect on crop water relations. The abundance of prokaryote communities and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi may increase nitrate recycling within soils, but the interaction between these processes, water stress in crops, and precipitation patterns predicted under future climate change scenarios are not known. The hypotheses tested will be:

1) The diversity and abundance of microbes are key drivers of nitrate retention dynamics in agricultural settings.
2) Transient anoxia driven by fewer, but more intense, rainfall events will alter the balance among microbial processes, notably nitrification and denitrification, and thus overall nitrate leaching
3) The abundance of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, and consequent interaction with nitrogen cycling prokaryotes, will further alter nitrogen cycling dynamics, and will be associated with lower nitrate leaching


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M011151/1 30/09/2015 29/09/2023
1642643 Studentship BB/M011151/1 30/09/2015 29/09/2019 Philip Alan Brailey
Description Introducing grass-clover fallow periods in to farming cycles can help to increase how well soil can cope with drought events- specifically through changing soil characteristics to benefit a reduction in water loss following post-drought rainfall. There was little evidence that this would positively impact the ability of AM fungal or wider fungal communities in the soils to recover following drought.

Work from this award has also provided evidence that differing wheat cultivars can harbor distinct fungal populations in their roots.
Exploitation Route The outcomes of this funding can be used to help guide farming practices and position further research in to how AM fungi and farming practices may affect climate change adaptation in farming systems.

Evidence of wheat cultivar-specific fungal populations raises questions as to what controls this process (wheat root secretions, architecture, specificity etc.) that opens up many options for research in wheat genotype x fungal population interactions. This can be used to assess wheat genotypes with the lowest abundance of pathogens inhabiting their root systems, and potential for pathogen resistance.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description Open Farm Sunday 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Open Farm Sunday is a UK-wide outreach event wherein farms are made accessible to the public. I was part of an inter-university group organising and carrying out activities for one event at a commercial dairy farm, Our Cow Molly. Activities were centered around the soil science behind healthy pasture land aimed at family groups.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016