The next of the PhD students we support to report on her study is Abi Brock. She has long held an interest in plants, and what makes them work, and now is focussed on helping crop plants to work even harder with less added fertiliser than ever before.
My name is Abi Brock and I am a PhD student based between the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), and the Crop Science Centre at the University of Cambridge. I’ve been fascinated by plants since growing up in the Lake District of England where I was surrounded by nature and farmland.
My journey to this TMAF-supported PhD
I chose to study plants at university, completing my bachelor’s degree at Durham University, and then my master’s degree at the University of Amsterdam.
After finishing my studies, I spent two years working at Syngenta. My job focused on crop protection, working to help protect plants against fungal pathogens, insect pests, and weeds. Now, I continue to study plants as a PhD student.
My current project is particularly exciting for me because it combines working with academia and mainstream agriculture, as well as working in the field. It’s important to me that my work results in real-world benefits for sustainable food production!
What issue is my project aiming to solve?
Crop growth and yield is often limited by the availability of soil nutrients. Conventionally, nutrient limitations in crop production have been addressed by using substantial quantities of inorganic fertiliser.
However, fertiliser nutrients can inhibit plants’ relationships with beneficial microbes such as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. This blocks a plant’s ability to get nutrients and other benefits from the fungus. In addition, there has been a push towards reducing the amount of inorganic fertiliser that is added to crops due to the cost and also the negative environmental impacts they can have.
One solution to these problems is to develop crop varieties that have a higher nutrient use efficiency. These are crops that maintain high yields even when receiving smaller amounts of fertiliser.
What’s the project?
My project is studying the role of the plant growth regulator, brassinosteroids, in nutrient use efficiency in cereal crops, such as wheat and rice.
Plants take up nutrients either directly through the roots, or indirectly through symbiotic relationships with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Recently, brassinosteroids have been found to have a role in both nutrient uptake pathways.
My project aims to identify whether adjusting brassinosteroid regulation could be used to reduce crop fertiliser needs.
I am particularly excited about the opportunity as part of my study to perform an experiment with soils from TMAF’s Saxmundham Crop Nutrition Site, where different fertiliser management was maintained for 120 years! This long-term vision with persistent management history is a rare and invaluable resource for improving fertiliser use efficiency in crops.
Ultimately, I hope that the knowledge we gain from my work can be used to develop cereal crops that can retain high yields with reduced fertiliser input. Overall, using less fertiliser will help farmers to produce crops more economically and help restore our environment.