In our research my team and I try to learn from the functioning of natural vegetation to obtain ideas for agriculture. We unravel the ecological and natural selective drivers of plant interactions with other plants and with their wider environment and then utilize this knowledge to contribute to more biodiverse, sustainable, climate resilient agricultural systems. To this end, we use a combination of field observations, field and greenhouse experiments and modelling. This work is strongly rooted in ecological/evolutionary theory (e.g. evolutionary game theory, biomechanics and niche differentiation).
Tragedies in wild and crop plants
We have shown that populations of plants that maximize population-level fitness (e.g. seed production) can be invaded by other plants that invest more in resource harvesting: grow taller produce more leaves or roots. Natural selection may thus result in plant populations that over invest in resource harvesting at the expense reproduction, a tragedy of the commons. But farmers of course aim for crops that maximize population level seed production. I try to understand how tragedy of the commons evolve and what information this gives for crop breeding.
Can plants recognize their kin?
Evolutionary theory predicts that organisms should exhibit more cooperative behavior towards neighbors that are genetically more related, so-called kin selection. For this, they need to be able to recognize their relatives (kin recognition). I study whether plants can recognize genetic copy of themselves and whether they can detect the level of kinship. I also consider whether kin recognition could be a favorable trait in crops.
Different signals used by plants to detect kin and associated responses.
Mixed species cropping
Research has shown that mixtures of crop species are more: productive, resource-efficient and resistant against weeds pests and diseases. I aim to better understand the mechanisms that drive these advantages and how this knowledge can be used to optimize these systems through breeding and smart crop configurations.
Sustainable coffee and cocoa
Both coffee and cocoa are major global commodities predominantly grown by small-holder often poor farmers. Increasing demand and very low yields per hectare (i.e., 80-90% yield gap) is causing expansion of production often at the expense of natural biodiversity, while climate change poses important threats for production. We aim to increase understanding of the functioning of coffee and cocoa crop systems, to help reduce the enormous yield gaps and develop sustainable climate smart production systems.
PhD student Catherine Kiwuka looking for drought tolerant wild coffee in Ugandan forests