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DEFRA Award to Explore Vital Role of Soil Microbiomes

Collaboration will boost transition towards more sustainable agricultural practices in UK.

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Farming Innovation Programme has granted Eagle Genomics, in collaboration with Rothamsted Research and CABI, a £391k award to investigate the significance of soil microbiomes. According to a press release from Rothamsted, their project involves analyzing data signatures from various agricultural practices and linking them to develop a soil health barometer.

The award – to be delivered in partnership with Innovate UK’s Transforming Food Production (TFP) Challenge – aims to give farmers and growers solutions for improved arable productivity with less impact on the environment.

In addition to employing Eagle Genomics’ pioneering e[datascientist] platform for novel data analysis and insights, this two-year feasibility study will utilize soil samples from locations within the ASSIST farm network. These sites are also part of the BBSRC-funded UK Crop Microbiome Cryobank project, along with Rothamsted’s long-term experimental fields. The study also builds on Rothamsted’s past research in understanding biological, physical, and chemical elements of soil health.

“Eagle Genomics will analyse data signatures between different agricultural practises and link these to develop a barometer for soil health, while CABI will biobank these samples for provenance,” said Dr. Yvonne Pinto, Director of Strategy, Innovation, Sustainability and Bioeconomy, Ag Bio at Eagle Genomics.

“This will increase understanding of the effect of different agricultural practices on the functionalities of healthy and poor soil indicators.”

These outputs will directly benefit farmers in the UK, providing indicators of soil health status and guide the transition to more sustainable and restorative agriculture. 

“Soil Health testing laboratories have the appetite to use these signatures to provide more detailed analysis to guide farmers decision making,” said Dr. Tim Mauchline, Plant and Soil Microbiologist at Rothamsted Research. “This will enable the provision of specific practical advice to farmers to improve their resilience, to increase soil carbon, increase biodiversity and water retention and potentially with additional revenue streams.” 

In the UK roughly 84% of fertile topsoil has been lost since 1850 due to highly mechanised farming systems causing compaction, erosion, and sub optimal plantings. Soil microbiomes drive critical functions in agro- ecosystems, including soil fertility, crop productivity and stress tolerance. 

Soil degradation was calculated to cost £1.2 billion annually in 2010. Agricultural management practices at the system level can induce structural modifications, consequently altering microbial processes at the micro-scale.

These alterations carry significant ramifications, including soil erosion, diminished soil fertility, and heightened greenhouse gas emissions. Presently, the primary indicators of soil health are classified into three categories: physical, chemical, and biological.

“Rothamsted Research is delighted to be partnering with Eagle Genomics and CABI, to support this exciting project to develop practical indicators of soil health status,” said Professor Martin Broadley, Science Director, Sustainable Soils and Crops at Rothamsted. “Applying recent advances in our understanding of soil biology, to enable the development of ‘next generation’ soil tests, will help farmers and the wider agriculture sector in delivering profitable and healthy agricultural systems.”

The website states the important work, as part of this collaboration, will significantly advance soil microbiology as an important component of the soil health continuum and enable practical strategies for farmers to conserve and regenerate their soils.

Dr Matt Ryan, Research Lead, Biological Resources at CABI, said, these valuable crop microbial samples are a vital resource for scientific researchers investigating how to ensure food security amid a range of challenges to crop production that also includes the threats posed by pests and diseases.

“Advancing research on solutions to mitigate these stressors is also imperative to help ensure the UK’s food security at a time when chemical fertilizers and pesticides are in the spotlight amid the growing concerns of climate change.”