Tracy Valentine

Maths, modelling and quantitative biology

The diverse group of modellers and mathematical biologists in EPI has now reached critical mass with some 15 in-house researchers and students. They direct a range of concepts and tools to questions in systems biology, at scales of organ, individual and community, and in applications as diverse as plant-plant sensing, multi-trophic interactions, ‘industrial’ genotypes and GM coexistence policy.

Modelling and various mathematical approaches now permeate much of the science and some of the applications in EPI. A common and defining feature of the work is the exploration of 'the individual' in 'the system', in which the interactions among individual organisms, organs or cells give rise to emergent properties not predictable from the characteristics of the individuals themselves. Biologists, modellers and software developers combine their skills to address central and essential challenges in modern biology. The examples below are of current work (main funders in parenthesis).

Clone of Sustainability Research Platform at Balruddery Farm

A new experimental research platform is being established at Balruddery Farm for long-term studies on arable sustainability.Photograph of a poppy field

The overall goal is to test whether or not potential solutions for sustainable agriculture arising from the current RERAD workpackages, actually result in improved arable biodiversity, resilience, crop productivity and yield stability at a commercial, field-scale over at least four rotation cycles (>20 years).

To do this, we will design a sustainable cropping system based on existing research at SCRI that optimises inputs, yield, biodiversity and ecosystem processes. The effect of this ‘sustainable’ system on long-term trends in yield and system health will be tested by comparison with current commercial practice.

Trait characterisation in crops

Photograph of growing-tubes in SCRI glasshousesCrop productivity has increased dramatically in recent decades through a combination of improved arable management and breeding of higher yielding crop genotypes.

Further increases in productivity are needed to cope with growing demands for food. The price, availability and high energy costs (carbon footprint) of inorganic fertiliser mean that food production will need to be achieved with fewer chemical inputs and with greater emphasis on a sustainable approach to arable cropping. 

New crop genotypes that require less chemical fertiliser and pesticide for a given level of yield could be developed by characterising plant traits associated with reduced nutrient requirements and high pest tolerance.

Contact: Alison Karley

Plant–Soil Interactions

Soil is a vital resource to humanity and is fundamental to most of the world’s food production. Scotland is blessed with some of the most productive soils on earth, so as climate changes and water is depleted in more susceptible countries, food demand from our limited land area will increase considerably. The economic benefits could be enormous, but this will be against several threats. More marginal land with poorer soils will be brought into production. Energy prices will drive lower inputs. Unsustainable farming practices of the past will need to be reversed. Climate change will increase the frequency of extreme weather events.

These challenges form the basis of our scientific research in the Plant-Soil Interactions Programme. A cross-disciplinary team of root biologists, ecologists, molecular biologists, physicists and soil management experts work across SCRI with an aim to maximise the positive interactions between plants and their soil environment. Our major research areas, UK and global research partners, and outreach activities are summarised below.

Environment Plant Interactions

Image of the SCRI site looking towards the River TaySCRI's environmental science research spans across disciplines to gain a holistic understanding of how plants respond to and modify environmental processes. Scottish Government commissioned research is gaining an in-depth understanding of the environment in arable farming systems and this is being used to advise on policy development in Scotland. These skills have also been applied to emerging issues relevant to the UK and Europe, including the UK’s Farm Scale Evaluations, international working groups, IPDM-based alternatives to pesicides and EU-wide studies on the ecological impacts of GM plants.

The environment and the ecology of plants and pests are our key research areas, investigated by a strong multidisciplinary team of scientists in entomology, pathology, plant sciences, vegetation ecology, phytochemistry, mathematical modelling and soil sciences. A major area of interest is integrating processes that occur above ground and in the soil. Research conducted on plant interactions with soil has extended from the understanding of sustainable arable systems to ‘green’ engineering solutions for slope stabilisation with vegetation.

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