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Leading for biodiversity
By working for more than a decade in biodiversity research, I have learned that biodiversity acts as a safety net for system Earth. Species-rich plant communities perform better and are more resilient to climate extremes and pathogen outbreaks than species-poor ones.
Still, I perceived the IPBES report stating that biodiversity loss is unprecedented and that our human activities are its cause as a wake-up call. Time to step up for biodiversity. Only if we start working together - now - in an integrated way, we are able to bend the curve of biodiversity loss (www.wur.nl/bendingthecurve). Therefore, I initiated and lead the Wageningen Biodiversity Initiative, which is a network of scientists and stakeholders that works on developing and implementing nature-inclusive solutions in the food system, landscapes and societies.
Playing hide and seek: the VIDI project
In 2015, I was awarded a personal VIDI Innovational Research grant to reveal the interplay between soil-borne pathogenic fungi, conspecific and heterospecific grassland plants in order to provide a mechanistic basis for the positive biodiversity effects and maintenance of coexistence. Together with the VIDI team members,- Eline Ampt, Sofia Fernandes Gomes, Jose Macia Vicente (and in the past also Davide Francioli), I aim to reveal the functional interactions of the main soi-borne fungal pathogens driving the biodiversity effect in grasslands. My team and I perform 1) community assembly studies with both fungal and plant communities in order to test host-specificity 2) focus-expansion experiments with plant monocultures and mixtures to study density-dependence and neighbour effects. The insights obtained from these controlled experiments will be tested at larger spatial scales and over longer time scales, in more natural settings.
To reveal these ‘hidden’ interactions and the consequences for ecosystem functioning, I and my team integrates insights from plant ecology, molecular biology, soil chemistry and phytopathology. My mission is to translate the ecological insights from these biodiversity experiments to diversify agricultural ecosystems, as I described in this blog https://jecologyblog.com/2018/03/05/liesje-mommer/.
Root traits and biodiversity-ecosystem functioning (or the joy of collaborating in sROOT!)
Plant roots perform multiple functions, including plant anchorage and belowground resource uptake, especially nitrogen, phosphorus and water. They have evolved a wide range of root traits to simultaneously perform these functions, which respond to spatial and temporal changes in soil properties and resource availabilities. Variation in root traits also implies large impacts on soil and ecosystem functions. However, despite the exponential interest towards root ecology, the connections of root traits to plant and ecosystem functioning remain poorly understood.
The development of a coherent root trait framework will allow a better prediction of plant community effects on ecosystem processes. The development of such an integrated framework will be particularly relevant for predicting effects of plant biodiversity on ecosystem functioning (BEF). There is consensus in BEF research that it is not plant species richness per se, but the value and range of functional traits of the species and their interactions that determine ecosystem functioning. Until now, the trait approach has only had limited success in BEF research. This may be due to the initial focus on aboveground traits, but also due to a lack of knowledge regarding the trait combinations driving ecosystem functions such as community producivity and nutrient cycling.
I have initiated the sROOT workgroup together with prof. dr. Alex Weigelt from University of Leipzig, Germany. We enjoy working together in a collaboraitve effort to understand root trait vatiation in whole-plant and ecosystem contexts. Check out the GRooT database! GRoot root database
Cover crops as a potential way to diversify agro-ecosystems
Cover crops are planted to maintain and improve the quality of probably the most precious asset in agriculture: healthy soils. These crops are currently widely applied to improve soil structure and prevent nutrient leaching. Next to these abiotic goals, cover crops have a major potential to lower the soil-borne disease pressure. The latter is a pressing issue as numerous pesticides that have been applied for decades to manage soil pathogens were banned recently. Particularly for the management of plant-parasitic nematodes and pathogenic fungi there is an urgent need for alternative measures, which may be provided by cover crops suppressing pathogens directly or indirectly via the stimulation of antagonists. However, the presence of multiple soil-borne diseases is commonplace, and a poorly-informed cover crop choice may even result in unintentional accumulation of one of these pathogens. Collaborating with Sara Cazzaniga, Hans Helder and Joeke Postma and stakeholders we will provide a scientific basis for optimal cover crop combinations that suppress pathogens and boost soil biodiversity.
A sneak preview of my inagural lecture (Wageningen University February 2016)