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DSSS: What is the Soil Phenotype?


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John Crawford was awarded the prestigious Judith and David Coffey Chair in Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Sydney in 2008. He holds a BSc in Physics from the University and Glasgow and a PhD in Theoretical Astrophysics from the University of London. He has published more than 100 papers in international peer-reviewed journal articles with over 1700 citations. Some research highlights include the theoretical prediction and first empirical evidence for self-organisation in the soil-microbe system (Science, Nature Reviews), the development of a general theory of biodiversity (Nature), the first demonstration of regional-scale gene flow in relation to GMOs (Nature) and the development of the first theoretical ecology of indeterminate systems (Proc. Roy. Soc.). Earlier highlights include the demonstration that the standard Big Bang theory was inconsistent with observed local scale structure (Nature) and the discovery of clouds on Venus (Nature) that is the subject of the current Venus Express space mission.


In this presentation, I will talk about the processes that maintain the natural fertility of the environment and how they might be harnessed to regenerate degraded landscapes. Soil sustains all terrestrial life, but its natural fertility is being degraded globally to an extent that its capacity to produce food will decline by 30% in the next 20 years. During that same interval of time, soil will have to produce 50% more food just to meet demand, and it will have to do so using less water, less fertiliser, less emissions in an uncertain future climate. The explosion of molecular data including metabolomics and transciptomics is providing new insights into the genetic complexity of the soil microbial community. Yet we are someway behind in our understanding of how metagenomic data can be related to the diversity and dynamics of micro-environments in soil to predict the emergent biological and physical behaviour of soil – the 'soil phenotype'. I will suggest how the interplay between physical and biological processes in soil might give rise to spontaneous organisation in the soil-microbe system, and will show what this means for the concept of the soil phenotype. I will discuss a simple model for the process and show how this can be used to complement molecular data to inform regenerative practises. Since the fungi are a key component of the microbial community in this respect, and I will outline some modelling approaches that we are using to link the fungal and soil phenotypes.