Environmental Plant Interactions

The baseline

Essential to any conceptual or predictive study of a 'system' is a reference  to real examples of its state and dynamics. Concepts and models should consider how the past has given rise to the present before they can can hope to predict how the present can be the basis of a sustainable future. At the beginning of this study, there was little systematic information at the scale of the field on either present or past states.

Historical trajectories

The condition of soil and farming in the past is not well documented. The major surveys of soil and vegetation provide useful background but are too infrequent. The main systematic source of data is the June Agricultural Census from which the areas grown with different crops and grass can be collated. Ten areas, defined by groups of parishes, shown circled in red in the map to the left, were selected as covering most types of farming within the arable-grass system. The Scottish Government provided data on cropped areas in each group, as electronic files from 1982 and as scanned paper documents before that. Other sources are being used to complement the information from the June census, notably surveys of pesticides and fertilizer.

Can indigenous microbes release phosphorus to crops?

An innovative new project aims to select and use indigenous, phosphorus-solubilising fungi and bacteria to increase the yield of crops by reducing phosphorus deficiency in the tropical soils of Cameroon. Isolation and testing of the microbes in the laboratory at SCRI will be followed by trials in Cameroonian fields.

The background - phosphorus in short supply

Photograph of croplands in the dry season (Geoff Squire)Agriculture is the dominant sector in most sub-Saharan countries of Africa. It provides employment for most of the rural population and makes an important contribution to GDP, GNP and foreign exchange. Agricultural productivity is low and the people depending on agriculture are generally poor. Many of the soils are mostly low in fertility (for example, photograph right), particularly in phosphorus (P) and nitrogen, and need to be fertilised for adequate yield.

Coexistence and ecological biosafety of two GM crops in Europe

The three-year, EU-funded project SIGMEA combined skills from many disciplines to examine the biological, environmental, agronomic, economic and legal issues that determine whether GM and non-GM crops can feasibly be grown in the same agricultural landscape. Its conclusions differed for the two crops that have been most widely studied.

Map of field patterning in a study of cross pollination - provided by Enric Mele, SpainSIGMEA reported mainly on coexistence, but also on ecological biosafety. Coexistence refers to the need to separate, in the food production chain, different types of crop, such as those that have been developed with or without genetic modification. While zero impurity of one type of crop in another is impossible to guarantee, the EU had set a threshold of 0.9% GM content for produce that can be labelled as GM-free.

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).

EPI modelling

A lot is known about how plants, animals and human decisions interact within the arable environment. There is increasing evidence however that what happens globally results from the interplay between these processes. Through modelling we aim to combine existing knowledge to make predictions of the system as a whole. The knowledge, methods and tools that we develop provide fundamental support to sustainable agricultural production systems.

Modelling of processes in arable systems

Image showing a model of the root meristematic waveWe use mathematical and statistical modelling to understand the functioning of arable vegetation and organisms, its responses to agricultural innovations and global change, and its role in the sustainability of the arable system as a whole. Key areas of this research include the following.

New directions in the Living Field project

SCRI’s widely respected educational project on the public understanding of science, established with charitable grants of £100k, now provides a range of IT aids, a demonstration garden, all-weather facilities and a study centre. It plans expansion to reach a wider public, while keeping its roots in the excitement of discovery.

Photograph of artist in residence Ronnie Forbes and helper - from the Living Field collectionThe idea of the Living Field project arose in 2001 out of a series of SCRI roadshows, in which scientists met the public in hands-on demonstration and discussion of biodiversity, gene flow, new crops and biological aliens. We learnt there were many people who wanted to know about the fields, food, crops, soil and ecosystems of the arable lowlands, but that roadshows alone would not reach enough people. The Living Field therefore looked to reach a wider audience. A small grant in 2002 allowed us to appoint a first Living Field officer working one day a week, and then to host the secondment of a teacher to SCRI to plan and develop materials. From then it grew.

Threats to our soils in a changing climate

Soil scientists at SCRI join a UK-wide consortium of research institutes and universities in a new £100k project to assess the effects of climatic change on threats to soil

Image of the cover of the RASE reportA report last year by the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) emphasised the threat of soil structural degradation from current agricultural practices. Eight 'key threats to soil' were identified at a European level: 

  • organic matter decline 
  • erosion
  • compaction
  • salinisation
  • landslide
  • sealing
  • contamination
  • declining biodiversity.

These threats are causing problems now but they might worsen if rainfall patterns and other climatic factors continue to change. Prolonged wet weather, for instance, will limit the growth of roots due to lack of oxygen (hypoxia) and limit the window of opportunity for soil cultivation or harvest.

New ecological patterns from the GM crop trials (FSEs) database

Two scientific papers on food webs and species-accumulation offer new approaches to GM risk assessment and post-commercial monitoring

Image showing sites for spring-sown crops in the FSEs - beet (blue), maize (red), oilseed rape (yellow)The world's largest GM field trials - the Farm Scale Evaluations of GM herbicide-tolerant crops, the FSEs - brought more than £6M of government funding to the study of arable ecosystems. A consortium of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Rothamsted Research and SCRI conducted the trials between 1999 and 2005 on more than 250 sites. The results have had wide influence on crop biotech policy in the UK and Europe. The basic comparisons of the effect of GM and non-GM cropping on biodiversity were published in around 15 papers to refereed journals including Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Nature, Biology Letters, Proceedings of the Royal Society and the Journal of Applied Ecology. The trials also established an unrivalled database of arable biodiversity and field management that continues to provide a rich seam for mining and analysis.

Modern composts for soil health, good crops and landscaping

Scientists in EPI have been awarded more than £200,000 in research grants, 2007-2009, to find and test new uses for urban green wastes in eco-engineering and agriculture.  

People living in towns and cities produce tons of garden waste - grass cuttings, hedge clippings, weeds, dead plants. This 'urban green waste' is a problem to get rid of because little of it can go to landfill sites, it's not much good for anything in its original state and there's too much of it to process locally in compost heaps. Yet urban green waste contains carbon and plant nutrients that are essential for the earth's life-systems. If it could be  processed into something useful, it would help reduce the carbon footprint of towns and cities (greenhouse gas emissions) and if applied to land could greatly reduce problems such as soil erosion and infertility.

Selenium, bread and man

Collaborative research with the University of Nottingham on the BAGELS project aims to increase the amount of Selenium in bread which is linked to human wellbeing

Image of Selenium chemical symbol on the periodic tableHumans need to eat plants or their products to survive. Plants take up their essential elements from the soil. Humans need soil. Recent research in EPI demonstrates the intimate links between human wellbeing and one of the elements that plants need to survive and grow - selenium. It shows our expertise in soils and crops contributes to solving material problems of human wellbeing.

Selenium is an essential element for humans. According to the UK Food Standards Agency selenium plays an important role in our immune system's function, in thyroid hormone metabolism and in reproduction. It is also part of the body's antioxidant defence system, preventing damage to cells and tissues.

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