£2.45 million gift launches novel research to sustainably increase crop yields

November 3, 2023

Imperial College London researchers are testing soil microbial communities to protect ecosystems thanks to a £2.45 million donation from the Michael Uren Foundation.

This research aims to address how to feed the world’s growing population without destroying natural ecosystems.

Recent studies have shown that certain soil microbes can suppress crop diseases, either by competing for food with them, or directly inhibiting their growth. However, past attempts to treat crops with individual strains of beneficial microbes have been ad hoc and limited in scope and scale.

Previous research by Imperial academics has shown that altering the entire soil microbial community (also known as the ‘soil microbiome’) can have better outcomes in comparison with single-strain alterations. Previous work has shown that taking soil microbiomes from one host and transplanting them into another can enhance the survival of tree seedlings or the health of pollinators. And now these researchers have proposed a groundbreaking strategy to further develop their research, enabling farmers to reliably conduct microbial interventions at the larger scales necessary for agriculture and ecosystem restoration.

The late Sir Michael Uren was a proud Imperial alumnus (Mechanical Engineering and Motive Power, 1943) and remains the College’s most generous benefactor. The Trustees of the Michael Uren Foundation say: “We are proud to continue Sir Michael Uren’s legacy of philanthropy at Imperial and the Foundation is active in supporting initiatives that preserve and enhance the environment. Dr Bonnie Waring’s project has the potential to protect biodiversity and deliver food security to communities all over the world, and we are excited to support this groundbreaking research.”

Harnessing microbial life in soils to sustain ecosystems
Led by Dr Bonnie Waring, Senior Lecturer in Ecosystems Ecology at Imperial, this work will build on an exciting and rapidly developing new field of research demonstrating that complex communities of bacteria, fungi and viruses – the ‘microbiome’ – control the functioning of organisms and ecosystems. Dr Waring will be supported by a project team with extensive knowledge across microbiome sciences, soil ecology and plant-microbe interactions.

“My project team has one ultimate goal: to help farmers optimise soil microbiomes on their own farms, tackling serious crop diseases and enhancing the sustainability of their operations,” says Dr Waring. “To do this, we will focus on optimising whole soil microbiomes to suppress crop pathogens. Our hypothesis is that disease suppression through the collective actions of complex microbiomes is an effective solution to maximise crop yields while minimising chemical inputs.

“We are pioneering a new way of approaching agriculture, environmental management and biodiversity improvement, making use of emerging technologies to develop and deliver solutions that can make a difference on a global scale.”

The project will begin during the 2023-24 academic year, and will last for three years. The Michael Uren Foundation’s philanthropic gift will largely be used to hire five post-doctoral research associates (PDRAs) and two research technicians to carry out the work, and will enable lead academic staff to contribute to the project.

Insights from the project team’s research will inform the creation of a digital toolkit to design efficient microbiomes, for improved land management worldwide.

This research will be carried out at Silwood Park, Imperial’s rural campus situated near Ascot in Berkshire and one of Britain’s foremost centres for research and teaching in ecology, evolution, and conservation. Here, the project team can draw upon the expertise and facilities on offer to test and refine this novel approach from lab to field, developing solutions that are ready for translation into real-world impact.

In other news, Imperial College London’s Silwood Park Campus is to be the new research base for CABI, paving the way for innovative collaborations on key environmental challenges.

Imperial College London and CABI have agreed to explore collaborations – spanning both teaching and research – with a focus on fragile ecosystems, sustainable agriculture, key environmental concerns, and how to sensitively manage the world’s biodiversity threatened by climate change.

The agreement will be enhanced by the relocation of CABI’s UK research facilities and staff from Egham to Imperial College London’s Silwood Park Campus. As well as collaborative research projects, scientists from CABI will contribute to delivering lectures to postgraduate students as well as seminars and practical lessons on courses in which they have relevant expertise.

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