One of the most urgent global challenges is to increase food production without expanding agricultural land area.
This “sustainable intensification” of agriculture will be crucial not only for feeding the world’s growing population but also for conserving global biodiversity and mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Cereal crops like wheat will have a particularly important role in future food security, yet their worldwide yields have recently plateaued. This suggests that new ideas will be needed to achieve the goal of sustainable intensification.
In many ways, plants should already be extremely good at capturing resources to produce seeds and fruits.
Natural selection on individual plants is expected to favour traits that enable them to grow and reproduce better than other members of their species. The problem with this, however, is that many traits that are good for an individual plant are bad for the productivity a group.
A trait like broad leaves, for example, may help an individual plant to capture more light for itself, but it only harms its shaded neighbours. A whole crop of broad-leaved plants would have so much shading that the crop could not efficiently turn sunlight into seeds and fruits. So how can we minimise competition in crops?
The aim of Jay’s research is to use evolutionary thinking to understand how to shift crops from a competitive state to a more cooperative and productive state.
He is interested in special cases where natural selection will have favoured cooperation, especially among the genetically-identical components of large individual plants (e.g., multiple stems from the same wheat plant).
Using the Watkins wheat landrace collection at our experimental farms, Jay is studying:
- What traits and genes are involved in cooperative interactions within wheat plants
- How to scale up this cooperation to an entire crop
Ultimately, Jay is looking for new and sustainable ways to transform the way that we grow productive food crops.