At the root of food security

A bioscientist at the University’s Centre for Plant Integrative Biology (CPIB) has been recognised by the Royal Society with a prestigious Wolfson Research Merit Award.

The award will support Professor Malcolm Bennett’s research into the ‘hidden half’ of plants and help develop crops with improved root architecture to help meet the challenge of global food security.

The Wolfson awards help UK universities recruit and retain outstanding scientists. Professor Bennett, one of 25 new Wolfson Research Merit Award holders, said: “This award provides recognition for the ground-breaking work of our team to re-engineer root systems and create new, improved and more sustainable varieties of crops.”

Crop production has to double by 2050 to keep pace with global population growth. Climate change, water shortages and moves to environmentally sustainable agriculture all present challenges in achieving this target. Developing crops with the root architecture critical to improved water and nutrient uptake would provide a solution.

Over the last six years, experts from the Schools of Biosciences, Maths, Computer Science and Engineering have worked together at CPIB to build predictive models of the complex interactions that take place in the roots of plants from cell to the field.

The award recognises Professor Bennett’s expertise in root growth and development. Many of the genes and signals that regulate key root traits such as angle, depth and branching density have been identified using a model plant called Arabidopsis thaliana.

Professor Bennett, pictured, is part of a worldwide effort to develop new varieties of crops. He aims to translate his knowledge of key root genes to re-engineer important traits and optimise yields in crops relevant to Europe (wheat), Asia (rice) and Africa (pearl millet) with international collaborators. In the long term, combinations of root traits and novel genes are likely to be required to underpin food security.

The new award, by supporting study of root growth and development, will inform the design of new crops and may transform agriculture over the next 10 to 20 years.

Professor Bennett explained: “To better understand exactly which combination of root traits and genes determine water and nutrient use efficiency in crops, our team is building on recent major investment at Nottingham by the University, the Wolfson Foundation, UK and European research councils. This investment has enabled us to non-invasively visualise crop roots grown in soil employing an unique combination of robotics, X-ray imaging and computer vision software.”

CPIB is funded by the Systems Biology initiative by BBSRC and EPSRC. The centre is one of six across the country sharing funding of £80m.

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