Finding the holy grail in production ecology

Society has expressed strong interest in a bio-based economy. This requires high-yielding crops that efficiently use nutrients and water and are insensitive to pests and diseases. However, it is generally expected that economic nutrient use and defence against enemies are trade-offs with fast growth. We intend to investigate how fast growth may be combined with effective resource use through tightening plant-soil food web interactions and control of soil-borne enemies.

The possibility that high plant productivity may be combined with more defence against soil-borne enemies and nutrient conservation stems from our previous work on secondary vegetation succession on abandoned agricultural land. Along that succession, plant species showed wide ranges of growth rates and defences against soil-borne enemies. We also observed that the soil food web was crucial for nutrient conservation. We will use data from that previous work and take a combined systems biology-ecology approach (Keurentjes et al. 2011) to explore how fast growing and high-yielding plants can produce with minimal nutrient loss and under minimal influence by soil-borne enemies. We would consider this a Holy Grail in production ecology.

We will take a dynamical modelling approach, describing the plant-soil system as an ecological network, in which the variety of components (i.e. the ‘nodes’, including population sizes of plants and soil organisms, and pool sizes of soil organic matter and nutrients) and interactions (i.e. ‘arrows’, including trophic interactions, nutrient mineralisation-uptake processes, soil organic matter production and decomposition, and plant pathogen-plant defence interactions) in an explicit and transparent way. By means of scenarios analyses, varying plant traits and soil/environmental conditions, we will investigate which combinations of plant traits and soil properties will develop towards ‘optimal plant performance’, in terms of growth, resource use efficiency, and defence against soil-borne diseases.