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Plant science discovery wins Times Higher research project of the year

22 October 2009

A team of plant scientists, funded largely by BBSRC, at Lancaster University has won the coveted Research Project of the Year at the Times Higher Education Awards 2009 for their research to enable plants to cope better in dry soils.

The research could help us to breed crops able to cope with reduced rainfall and is already being used by industry to develop new crop irrigation techniques. With the world facing a major food security challenge in the coming decades research such as this is vital to underpin advances needed to deliver safe, nutritious and affordable food for a growing world population.

Award judge Professor Ian Diamond, then Chairman of Research Councils UK, said, “The Lancaster project uses fundamental research into plant biology to have a real impact on farming practices in truly drought-challenged societies.

“It is an outstanding example of a project which successfully combines excellence with impact”.
The team led by Professor Bill Davies, has identified the phenomenon of ‘root to shoot’ chemical signalling in plants, which helps the plant cope with drought.  Prof. Davies’ team found that drying soil can generate chemical signals in plant roots, which are subsequently transported to the shoots to help plants slow water loss and cope with water shortage. These signals are important components of the plant’s armoury against environmental stress, and are crucial to the development and survival of plants in water scarce environments.

Over a number of years the team has shown that these chemical signals can be used to optimise both plant growth and water-use, and even to stimulate the production of fruit and seeds. All of these responses can be ‘switched on’ by irrigating plants with reduced quantities of water, a process that has been called ‘partial rootzone drying’.

“Water use is reduced, plants are hardened to drought stress but importantly crop quality and yield are sustained, thereby allowing the production of ‘more crop per drop’,” Prof. Davies explains.

Recent new avenues of research include the use of bacteria which occur naturally in the soil around the roots of some plants to promote plant growth in drying soil.  These simple soil additives can be another way to deliver ‘more crop per drop of irrigation water’.

The University has been highly successful in disseminating the results of this fundamental science to user communities. One example has been the development by the University of a range of training programmes with support from schemes such as BBSRC’s Modular Training for Industry programme.

Through a BBSRC China Partnering Award, Prof. Davies is applying water saving agriculture practices in China with collaborators, to focus on an important food production region where water scarcity is a major problem.

There has also been extensive application in viticulture in Australia (in partnership with CSIRO) and in viticulture, fruit and vegetable production around the Mediterranean and in USA.

The award was announced at an awards dinner on 15 October.