Current conventional agriculture relies heavily on high nutrient inputs that will be taken up directly by the plants as well as massive use of pesticides. In these systems, plants are considered as sole players, disregarding plant traits that can improve the recruitment of beneficial soil microbes for nutrient mobilization and plant protection. As a consequence, conventional practices have resulted in low nutrient use efficiencies, groundwater pollution and increased soil erosion to non-sustainable levels. High loads of synthetic and organic fertilizers as well as synthetic pesticides have made many beneficial soil biota, especially microbes, redundant. Their multi-functional ecosystem services have been replaced with single-purpose synthetic additives designed to support and protect plants directly, and their interactions with the plant have been neglected in breeding strategies.
The concept of this project relies on the principle that plants naturally interact with beneficial (soil) microbes, making them less dependent on synthetic inputs. For instance, varieties with increased root biomass and carbon exudation should be able to recruit beneficial soil microbiota more efficiently than conventional varieties, selected to work alone and on high nutrient availability. The greater the below-ground diversity in the soil, the better the prospects of plant roots to recruit beneficial microbes to mobilize nutrients, reduce stresses and suppress pathogens. Nutrient use efficiency increases with improved microbial nutrient recruitment alongside a reduced fertilizer dependency and lowered groundwater pollution. This approach will be particularly beneficial for potato cultivation where many varieties have underdeveloped root systems and are susceptible to pests and other environmental stress factors including changes in climate.
PotatoMETAbiome aims at identifying potato genotypes that interact effectively with the soil microbiome, thus generating cultivars that have reduced dependencies on external inputs (synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) while maintaining high yield, under non-stress as well as biotic (pathogen pressure) and abiotic stress conditions. Potato varieties will be selected for microbiome-interactive traits (MIT) and analyzed for both plant and microbiome genomics, thus identifying the mechanisms controlling the positive effect of the microbiome and genetic markers associated with MIT for use in future potato breeding strategies. Moreover, we will evaluate how the use of biologicals can boost nutrient uptake, as well as resilience to biotic (disease) and abiotic stress (drought). Altogether, this project will generate a resilient potato cropping system better able to recover from biotic and abiotic stresses.