Wheat-soil interaction paves the way for sustainable agriculture

Understanding how wheat roots can fine-tune the activity of soil microbes to benefit agriculture is the focus of an international collaboration starting this spring.

The WISH-Roots consortium, funded by the European joint programme, EJP Soil, and by the BBSRC in the United Kingdom, brings together seven international partners, including specialists in microbiology, plants and soils.

The project will be coordinated by a team from the John Innes Center and will conduct field trials in six countries to identify the potential beneficial effects of growing wheat on soil health. The field trials will involve twenty wheat lines for two consecutive seasons in six different locations around the world. In parallel, wheat germplasm will be explored in the unique phenotyping facilities at Forschungszentrum Julich in Germany.

Dr. Maria Hernandez-Soriano, postdoctoral fellow at the John Innes Center, said: “Soil provides 99% of the food that humanity consumes. It is not an infinite resource and it is being lost at an alarming rate. We are studying how to preserve and improve it in cropping systems. Healthier soil supports healthier plants, which translates to healthier people.

Silvio Salvi, a consortium partner from the University of Bologna, said: “I see the agricultural soil and the cultivated plants, especially their roots, as a unit; as two related entities that have evolved together since the beginning of agriculture. It makes sense to take this into account when trying to change either part for the good of our agricultural production systems and our environment.

WISH-Roots will be at the forefront of engineering the rhizosphere, the area of ​​soil around the root of the plant. The project will investigate the idea that wheat roots can refine soil health, that is, the ability of soils to provide nutrients and water to plants, to support other forms of life.

Michael Kidson, Consortium Partner, ARC-LNR South Africa, said: “Breeding wheat for natural root traits to control natural microbial processes is essential for sustainable food production.”

The project hopes to identify characteristics of wheat that promote more sustainable land use for farmers, thereby improving soil microbial biodiversity, nitrogen cycling and soil structure.

It will provide genetic resources and predictive models to breeders and other stakeholders for the introduction of beneficial root traits in wheat production.

The consortium will explore soft wheat germplasm at the John Innes Center and the durum wheat global genomic resources at the University of Bologna to identify traits related to root anatomy and secretions.

The expected increase in world population will require a 70 percent increase in food production by 2050, with cereal production expected to increase by 50 percent. At the same time, our ability to increase food production will be limited as nearly two-thirds of agricultural land has been degraded over the past 50 years and every year 12 million hectares of agricultural land are lost due to degradation. soils. This project will explore new sustainable agriculture strategies that can support and improve soil health, in particular by increasing the efficiency of chemical fertilizers and supporting soil biodiversity.

Modern wheat varieties are the result of intensive breeding to improve traits such as yield, with little attention paid to their roots and impact on the soil. The WISH-Roots project will attempt to restore some natural traits that can support sustainable wheat production.

The project has been designed to enable the exchange of knowledge and expertise between participants and strong interaction with the public and stakeholders.


Building an integrated agricultural soil research community, EJP SOIL is a European co-founder of a joint program on agricultural soil management that contributes to key societal challenges including climate change, water and future food security.

The goals are to develop knowledge, tools and an integrated research community to foster sustainable climate-smart agricultural soil management that:

  • Enables sustainable food production
  • Supports soil biodiversity
  • Supports soil functions that maintain ecosystem services

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