KU News: Research offers a reason why diversity in plant species causes higher farming yield, solving ‘a bit of a mystery’

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Research offers a reason why diversity in plant species causes higher farming yield, solving ‘a bit of a mystery’

LAWRENCE — A study appearing in Nature Communications based on field and greenhouse experiments at the University of Kansas shows how a boost in agricultural yield comes from planting diverse crops rather than just one plant species: Soil pathogens harmful to plants have a harder time thriving. The research argues against the industrial-agricultural practice of planting a single food crop over many acres of land, according to James Bever, senior scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey & Center for Ecological Research and Foundation Distinguished Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at KU.

 

KU Center for Public Partnerships & Research to lead statewide needs assessment of substance use disorder systems

LAWRENCE ­— The Sunflower Foundation has announced that it has selected the University of Kansas Center for Public Partnerships & Research to conduct a yearlong, comprehensive statewide needs assessment of substance use disorder systems and related work in Kansas that will be used to guide the future, long-term investment strategies of the Kansas Fights Addiction Grant Review Board.

 

Full stories below.

 

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Contact: Brendan Lynch, KU News Service, 785-864-8855, [email protected], @BrendanMLynch

Research offers a reason why diversity in plant species causes higher farming yield, solving ‘a bit of a mystery’

 

LAWRENCE — A study appearing in Nature Communications based on field and greenhouse experiments at the University of Kansas shows how a boost in agricultural yield comes from planting diverse crops rather than just one plant species: Soil pathogens harmful to plants have a harder time thriving.

“It’s commonly observed that diverse plant communities can be more productive and stable over time,” said corresponding author James Bever, senior scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey & Center for Ecological Research and Foundation Distinguished Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at KU. “Range lands with numerous species can show increased productivity. But the reason for this has been a bit of a mystery.”

While crop rotation and other farming and gardening practices long have reflected benefits of a mix of plants, the new research puts hard data to one important mechanism underpinning the observation: the numbers of microorganisms in the soil that eat plants.

“Diverse agricultural communities have the potential to keep pathogens at bay, resulting in greater yields,” Bever said. “What we show is that a major driver is the specialization of pathogens, particularly those specific to different plant species. These pathogens suppress yields in low-diversity communities. A significant advantage of rangeland diversity is that less biomass is consumed by pathogens, allowing more biomass for other uses, such as cattle. The same process is crucial for agricultural production.”

The new data was developed at the University of Kansas using field experiments at the KU Field Station, along with greenhouse assays and feedback modeling using computers. This project was supported by large collaborative grants to KU from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We conducted an experiment manipulating the number of plants in a plot and varying precipitation levels — we had from one up to six species in a plot,” Bever said. “Then, we evaluated the composition of the soil-pathogen microbiome. What we found is that the variation in pathogen composition in monocultures significantly predicted the yield when combined. When there are distinct pathogen communities, mixing them leads to a greater release of pathogens from your neighbors. The worst scenario is when a neighboring crop has the same pathogens. In that case, you’re experiencing double density — your crop pathogens and those from your neighbor crop.”

At KU, Bever’s collaborators included associate specialist Peggy Schultz as well as Haley Burrill and Laura Podzikowski, both of whom earned doctorates at KU and now are postdoctoral researchers at the University of Oregon and KU, respectively. Lead author Guangzhou Wang worked at KU as a postdoctoral researcher and now is affiliated with China Agricultural University in Beijing, where he worked on the investigation there with co-authors Fusuo Zhang and Junling Zhang. They were joined by co-author Maarten Eppinga of the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

According to Bever, the research argues against the industrial-agricultural practice of planting a single food crop over many acres of land, often referred to as “monoculture.”

“Regarding monoculture practices, the philosophy of promoting plant diversity seems to counter prevailing practices,” he said. “Monoculture — planting vast areas with a single crop — is driven by technological reasons rather than biological ones. Practical aspects of planting and harvesting have motivated this approach. Traditional Native American agriculture and practices in the tropics involve polycultures with multiple species. In China, there’s a movement towards mechanized polyculture production, challenging the predominant monoculture model in the United States. It’s essential to view monoculture as a cost-benefit model with increased inputs and explore alternative methods like crop rotation to manage pathogens over time.”

Bever said mixing plants in various plots would be beneficial to home gardeners and others who cultivate plants.

“When you’re gardening, you’re not relying on mechanical planting and mechanical harvesting,” he said. “It’s definitely to your advantage to mix your crops — to plant them in heterogeneous mixes in the plot. For convenience, we might plant alternating rows of different crops. That’s going to do a better job of controlling pathogens than if you just had many rows of the same crop next to each other. If you had four plots in your backyard that were discrete, you wouldn’t want to put all tomatoes in one and all squash in another, and a third with herbs — you’d want to mix them in. You’ll reduce pathogens by doing that. It’s what our data shows.”

Finally, Bever said his team’s findings that show biodiversity prohibits pathogen growth isn’t as clear-cut outside the plant kingdom. In fact, the idea is contentious in animal systems like Lyme disease.

“Our clear result in the plant world contrasts with the complexity of this literature in the animal world,” he said. “In the context of recent attention on pathogens, such as with COVID, the study of pathogens in ecology has been controversial. The impact of diversity on pathogen impacts, whether it increases or decreases, has been debated. Our findings for plants indicate the bigger concern is the reduction of pathogen spread with increased diversity, rather than an increase. In our study, pathogens, including soil-dwelling ones, were examined. Similar patterns were observed with foliar pathogens, as detailed in an upcoming paper. The controversy arises from differences between how pathogens affect the animal kingdom versus plants.”

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Contact: Brett Riggs, Sunflower Foundation, [email protected], @SunflowerFDN; Nina Yun, Center for Public Partnerships & Research, [email protected], @CPPRMedia

KU Center for Public Partnerships & Research to lead statewide needs assessment of substance use disorder systems

LAWRENCE ­— The Sunflower Foundation has announced that it has selected the University of Kansas Center for Public Partnerships & Research (CPPR) to conduct a yearlong, comprehensive statewide needs assessment of substance use disorder (SUD) systems and related work in Kansas that will be used to guide the future, long-term investment strategies of the Kansas Fights Addiction Grant Review Board.

The board oversees the KFA Grant Program, which provides funding to eligible state agencies, governmental entities and nonprofit organizations that deliver services in Kansas aimed at preventing, reducing and treating substance abuse or addiction. In 2023, the KFA board awarded more than $10 million for projects across the state using money recovered by the Kansas Attorney General’s Office through legal settlements with pharmaceutical companies, distributors and related firms that have fueled the addiction crisis.

Sunflower Foundation, as administrator for the grant program, has been tasked with coordinating completion of the needs assessment.

One of the founding centers of the Achievement & Assessment Institute at KU, CPPR partners with agencies and organizations to improve the lives of children, youth and families. Through this partnership with the foundation, CPPR is tasked with conducting a needs assessment that will provide an in-depth view of the state’s SUD system across the lifespan and including all sectors, from early childhood and prevention through treatment and long-term recovery.

Through the needs assessment, the KFA board seeks to gain a better understanding of SUD system needs and identify where innovation is both necessary and possible to further reduce substance abuse and addiction, save lives and improve systems of care.

“We are honored and humbled to be selected by Sunflower Foundation to conduct a comprehensive needs assessment in support of the Kansas Fights Addiction Grant Review Board and its long-term investments in prevention, harm reduction, treatment and other strategies,” said Jackie Counts, CPPR executive director. “Having seen the glaring signs of the opioid crisis through work helping children, youth and families overcome systemic challenges, we are eager to partner with Sunflower Foundation to delve deeper into the devastating legacy and evolving fallout of the opioid epidemic.”

While previous system assessments have provided a solid foundation of data and helped jump-start the KFA grant program, a more complete, cross-systems analysis is necessary. To that end, CPPR will be looking to engage stakeholders and the public at the community level in search of new, innovative strategies that are succeeding in reducing SUDs and improving systems of care.

“Looking across the lifespan at all sectors and systems is essential to provide a roadmap for the KFA board and our state as they work to create a more comprehensive, innovative and multipronged strategy for identifying transformative solutions to the substance use disorder crisis in Kansas,” said Billie Hall, president and CEO of Sunflower Foundation. “Sunflower Foundation is eager to provide the results of this needs assessment to the KFA board as it seeks to gain a more thorough understanding of the way connections across systems influence substance use disorders.”

The foundation welcomes CPPR’s extensive experience in empowering communities to identify and create systemic change and believes it aligns well with the objectives set out for the KFA Needs Assessment.

“At CPPR, we know that those closest to the problems are best positioned to generate solutions. We believe it is our job to listen to what communities want and need, then equip them with the best research and supports available to generate solutions and deliver services,” Counts said. “We are excited for the work ahead and the opportunity to help communities envision and realize a better tomorrow.”

Sunflower Foundation and CPPR anticipate work on the KFA Needs Assessment will take at least 12 months to complete.

To maximize its effectiveness, the needs assessment will require intensive and broad engagement and input from Kansans and subject matter experts across the state and all disciplines. Anyone interested in providing input as part of the assessment process, or who would like to receive updates regarding the assessment and its results, can share their name, contact information and suggestions by going to the project website and clicking on KFA Needs Assessment.

 

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Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, director of news and media relations, [email protected]

 

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