New research suggests harnessing fungi to help improve agricultural efficiency for cereal crops, saying fungi can improve nutrient uptake and reduce the need for fertilizers. The study was published recently in the journal Global Change Biology and proposes a partnership between fungi and wheat to decrease the ecological impact of the cereal crop, highlighting the potential for “climate-smart” crops.
The research was led by Professor Katie Field, from the University of Leeds' School of Biology and Global Food and Environment Institute. Professor Field explained her work, stating: "Fungi could be a valuable new tool to help ensure future food security in the face of the climate and ecological crises. These fungi are not a silver bullet for improving the productivity of food crops, but they have the potential to help reduce our current overreliance on agricultural fertilizers.”
In the study, the researchers let fungi cultivate the roots of three different varieties of wheat in the laboratory under two different scenarios: our current climate, and that which we can expect for 2100. The team was able to figure out that while the wheat varieties benefited differently from the relationship with the fungi, all three took in nutrients via the fungi in both of the climate models. One of the varieties of wheat, called Skyfall, was particularly successful in the uptake of phosphorus, absorbing 570 times more than the Avalon variety and 225 times more than Cadenza. They were able to determine this by chemically tagging phosphorus and nitrogen in the soil and CO2 in the air.
Perhaps, say the researchers, it is plausible to breed climate-smart wheat crops that could really take advantage of the fungal partnership, thus decreasing farmers’ dependence on fertilizers and minimizing the environmental impacts.
Dr. Tom Thirkell, from the University of Leeds' School of Biology, was co-author of the study. He commented, "For thousands of years, farmers have been breeding crops to increase productivity and disease resistance, but this has mainly been based on what can be seen above ground. We are starting to realize that some of the crops we have domesticated lack these important connections with fungi in the soil. Our results suggest there is real potential to breed new crop varieties which regain this lost relationship with beneficial fungi and improve the sustainability of future food production systems."
Furthermore, because the study showed no difference in phosphorus or nitrogen exchange from the fungi to the wheat at the higher CO2 level for any of the three crop varieties, the potential for this relationship to offer positive benefits even in our impending climate is high. Nevertheless, the authors say that more research will be needed in order to see if their idea would work in a real farm setting, not just in a laboratory.