Managing water scarcity in European and Chinese cropping systems

Author: Vasileios Giannakopoulos, Lancaster University

My research primarily focuses on how plants respond to environmental conditions (drought and atmospheric stresses). Last year I completed my Ph.D. studies at Lancaster Environment Centre, and I investigated the effects of soil-surfactants on cereal growth and physiology (both barley and maize) in drying soil. During this time, I worked with a commercial company that manufactures surfactants. My recent postdoctoral contract was in the RECIRCULATE project where I worked on improving irrigation techniques for rice crops grown in Western Africa.

During the SHui Project, I will investigate maize responses to drought stress, specifically its rhizosheath formation. Rhizosheath is defined as soil particles that adhere to roots during soil drying, due to presence of root hairs and root exudates. Rhizosheath is a promising trait to help improve plant tolerance to abiotic stress since it has a higher water content than bulk soil and occurs in many plants, including agriculturally important crops such as maize and other mesophytic and desert grasses. However, whether the rhizosheath promotes plant stress resilience is still debated. Thus, this work aims to investigate whether and how rhizosheath development facilitates plant water availability and growth in maize.

Figure 1: Rhizosheath quantification and root length measurement.

What excites me about Shui Project is the interdisciplinary nature since it comprises a diverse group of international scientists. This work will contribute to maximize water use for food production and support farmers by increasing plant resilience to abiotic stress, in a changing climate.

In the middle of 21st century, global population will reach 9 billion people and the ability of current agricultural systems to maintain the high food demands is a substantial issue. At the same time, continuous population growth and climate change limit availability of water that is considered as the main restraint of crop productivity. Hence, water scarcity is considered as a global systemic risk. It is important to better understand the mechanisms underlying plant stress resilience to better design future crop improvement strategies.