14 June 2019

UCPH researchers on hunt for sustainable super crop recipe


Smarter food production is becoming an imperative as the world's population swells and climate changes. With the backing of a 203 million kroner grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation, researchers at the University of Copenhagen and other institutions will assemble the knowledge needed to develop resilient and sustainable crops through the use of bacteria.

Two billion more humans will populate Earth in 30 years, as pressures on planetary resources balloon. The UN expects food demand to grow by roughly 50%. Currently, a third of crops are lost due to factors including drought, pests and disease. Consequently, the need to develop more sustainable and efficient agriculture is a matter of necessity. A growing interest can be found among researchers and industry to substitute pesticides and fertilizers with beneficial microorganisms - bacteria and fungi. Current solutions are often challenged by low efficiency and new initiatives must be developed.

Two new projects headed by researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences focus on achieving an in-depth understanding of the interaction between plants and the microorganisms surrounding them above and below ground. This is an area currently subject to a shortage of knowledge. The ultimate aim is to use this knowledge to develop more resilient crops that can be grown in an environmentally friendly manner. The projects are part of the new 6-year Collaborative Crop Resilience Program (CCRP), a collaborative project that includes the participation of Aarhus University, DTU and North Carolina State University. The program is supported by a DKK 203 million grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation. It is the largest single agricultural research grant ever in Denmark. Approximately DKK 122 million will be allocated to the two sub-projects anchored at the University of Copenhagen.

Analogous to our gut flora

"Just as human gut flora are vital for our health, microorganisms living on plants greatly influence their performance. However, we still don’t know enough about how various bacteria interact and how plants are affected by the cloud of signals they release. We now have a framework to identify these complex interactions, where we could previously only scratch at the surface," says Professor Lars Hestbjerg Hansen, a microbiologist at UCPH’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. Hestbjerg directs MATRIX, a sub-project that will focus on studying plant leaves.

Microorganisms play a myriad of roles for plants. Some suppress disease, others help stimulate growth, and yet others increase nutrient uptake - of nitrogen and phosphorus, for example. The ultimate aim is to exploit the properties of microorganisms to develop crops that are as robust as possible, either in the form of microbial solutions that provide an alternative to chemistry and pesticides, or through crop improvement.

New knowledge can get plants to attract the right bacteria

Associate Professor Mette Haubjerg Nicolaisen, a microbiologist at the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences heads INTERACT, a sub-project focusing on the mechanisms at work around plant root systems. She explains:

“Once we gain a basic understanding of how plants and microorganisms interact, we will be able to develop solutions where helpful bacteria and fungi can be added to equip plants against drought, disease and other threats to their well-being. The knowledge acquired can also be deployed to optimize crops and cultivation methods, so that plants attract beneficial microorganisms from soil. As such, we hope to realize higher and more stable yields than today, without the addition of large amounts of pesticide and fertilizer."

John Renner Hansen, Dean of the Faculty of Science is equally enthusiastic about the project's perspectives:

"At SCIENCE, we are among the global leaders in plant and agricultural research. This project presents a unique opportunity to acquire fundamental knowledge that can benefit the planet as a whole and make a difference of critical importance for the future. Not only can it help solve one of our greatest global challenges, by paving the way for greener and more efficient agriculture, it will also underscore the exceptionally high standard of Danish research in this area."

Svend Christensen, Head of Department at the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, adds:

"We are proud to have received an appropriation of this magnitude for the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. And, we are enthused by this opportunity to collaborate with AU, DTU and North Caroline State. By uniting Denmark's strongest universities in agricultural research with international capacities, we can achieve truly unique results. I believe that CCRP can contribute to accelerating development in and the green transformation of agriculture."