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New research flavour combinations needed: marmite peanut butter, anyone?

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Blog picture: New research flavour combinations needed: marmite peanut butter, anyone?
"As we develop ideas for new initiatives such as the Hutton’s Advanced Plant Growth Centre, we need to keep in mind the opportunity this brings for just such an interaction of disciplines, hopefully enabling us to develop some exciting new research flavour combinations."

I’ve always been something of a generalist, interested in topics including plant ecophysiology, landscape scale conservation management, and global biodiversity policy. What I enjoy is bringing some of these topics together to see whether this can spark new ideas. There is often something thought-provoking about a simple juxtaposition of concepts and approaches, much in the same way that odd food combinations can turn out to be delicious.

An area where this feels really fruitful at present is the work on crops mixtures and their role in delivering sustainable crop production, and a great example is some of the work in the DIVERSify project [1]. DIVERSify’s participatory farmers and project partners have been running a wide range of field trials, and this has helped us generate a substantial database which we can now use to look for patterns in the benefits of crop mixtures. What’s particularly interesting is that we can take predictions from ecological theory and see whether they hold true for crop production. For DIVERSify we’re going to be exploring predictions from plant community ecology’s Stress Gradient Hypothesis which, put very simply, says that you expect more beneficial interactions between plants in a diverse mixture or community under stressful conditions. This theory has been supported in meta-analyses of data from a wide range of ecosystems [2], and we hope it will also give us a simple predictive framework for understanding when and where crop mixtures might deliver benefits.

Another area where combining ideas from multiple fields has great potential is breeding for sustainability. Recent studies explore domestication syndrome [3], the changes that take place in plant traits as a consequence of domestication. Traits are simply the characteristics of plants such as leaf size and thickness, rooting depth, and height, which determine how they grow, interact with other species, and impact on the benefits we get from ecosystems. Domestication has selected for traits such as larger seed size and uniformity of ripening; at the same time other traits have – either by design or chance - been lost. These can include, for example, deeper rooting, natural plant defences, or the capacity to interact with beneficial soil organisms. What’s interesting is that the loss of these traits may now be a problem as we’re starting to think about breeding for resilience, either in reduced input systems or under a future climate. Some of the work that, for example, Tim George and colleagues are doing is exploring whether these beneficial traits remain in barley landraces, including the capacity of Scotland’s own landrace bere barley to access nutrients, particularly micronutrients like manganese [Mn] and zinc [Zn]) in marginal soils [4]. This knowledge provides the potential - and genetic material - for breeding these beneficial traits into future barley cultivars.

When exploring the potential of plants to access alternative nutrient sources, it is clearer what trait we’re looking for. What’s more challenging and intriguing are cases where we know something is going on, but we don’t yet know what the mechanism and relevant traits are. A nice example of this is work lead by Christian Schöb from ETH Zurich. Christian re-analysed data from a long-term grassland experiment and showed that some of the beneficial effects of multi-species communities are enhanced if the plants have evolved in a multi-species community [5]. The obvious outcome of this for crop breeding is that traits evolved in monoculture systems may not be ideally suited to growing in mixtures. What’s really fun is that right now we don’t know exactly how the plants are evolving so as to enhance these mixtures benefits. This means that identifying these traits is a topic which sits squarely at the forefront of sustainable crop production and plant community ecology and provides a great example of where ecology and crop science can be brought together. As we develop ideas for new initiatives such as the Hutton’s Advanced Plant Growth Centre (APGC), we need to keep in mind the opportunity this brings for just such an interaction of disciplines, hopefully enabling us to develop some exciting new research flavour combinations. Marmite peanut butter, anyone?

[2] He, Q., Bertness, M.D. & Altieri, A.H. (2013) Global shifts towards positive species interactions with increasing environmental stress. Ecology Letters, 16, 695–706.

[3] Milla, R., Garcia-Palacios, P. & Matesanz, S. (2017). Looking at past domestication to secure ecosystem services of future croplands. J Ecol, 105, 885-889.

[4] Schmidt, S.D.; George, T.S.; Brown, L.K.; Booth, A.; Wishart, J.; Hedley, P.E.; Martin, P.; Russell, J.; Husted, S. (2019) Ancient barley landraces adapted to marginal soils demonstrate exceptional tolerance to manganese limitation. Annals of Botany, 123, 831-843.

[5] Schöb, C., Brooker, R.W. & Zuppinger-Dingley, D. (2018). Evolution of facilitation requires diverse communities. Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author, and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.