Rachel Hestrin, an assistant professor in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture and in the Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment, recently won a New Innovator Award from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), in the category of Soil Health. This ~$450,000 award will support Hestrin’s research on mycorrhizal-microbial synergies that can strengthen agricultural resilience and health. 

This is the second year in a row that a UMass researcher has won an FFAR award. Lutz Grossmann, an assistant professor and the Honors Program Director in the Department of Food Science, previously won an award in the Health-Agriculture Nexus category for his research on high-protein bacteria that use hydrogen as an energy source, which can be produced sustainably and use less land than traditional agriculture.  

Rachel Hestrin, an assistant professor in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture and in the Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment
Rachel Hestrin, an assistant professor in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture and in the Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment

“We are grateful for FFAR’s generous investment in early-career scientists and innovative approaches,” said Hestrin. “The New Innovator Award gives us the freedom to be more creative while we’re establishing our research programs.” 

What global challenges exist that would inspire FFAR to create a Soil Health category in the first place? According to FFAR, “some farming practices harm soils, depriving them of nutrients, killing the beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil, or leaving them vulnerable to washing away. Climate change is further accelerating the loss and degradation of soils.” Through this award category, FFAR champions thriving soils as a means to “bolster crop yields, increase water retention, protect water quality, prevent erosion, sequester carbon, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve biodiversity.”  

Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic associations with most agricultural crop families. These symbioses mediate plant nutrient acquisition, soil organic matter storage, and many other processes that support crop productivity and soil health.  

“Recent discoveries show that mycorrhizal fungi do not accomplish these processes alone, but through complex interactions with other microorganisms that inhabit the mycorrhizal hyphosphere—the zone of soil that surrounds mycorrhizal hyphae,” said Hestrin. Her proposal highlighted the potential for such synergistic mycorrhizal-microbial interactions to facilitate soil health functions, such as nutrient availability, resource use efficiency, and carbon storage.  

Despite the potential for mycorrhizal-microbial synergies to support sustainable agriculture, staggering biological complexity and methodological limitations have hindered scientists’ ability to link microbial measurements to agronomic outcomes. Hestrin believes that one of the barriers to progress is a mismatch between the spatiotemporal scale of common empirical measurements and the scale of actual biological interactions. “The mycorrhizal hyphosphere likely extends only microns and its inhabitants respond rapidly to changing conditions, but most soil measurements require cubic centimeters of soil and occur on a temporal scale of weeks or longer,” Hestrin explained. 

Hestrin seeks to address these challenges by leveraging three state-of-the-art methodologies:  

  • stable isotope tracing, a method that uses isotopically labeled compounds to track nutrient cycles and resource exchange between organisms; 
  • non-invasive exometabolite analysis, an approach that provides insights into plant and microbial metabolic activity without altering the environmental conditions that they experience; 
  • and live bioimaging, a technique for visualizing real-time biological interactions. 

“Each of these methods has the potential to greatly advance our understanding of mycorrhizal-microbial synergies,” explained Hestrin. Additionally, through collaborations with stakeholders, Hestrin aims to help bridge the gap between fundamental scientific knowledge and practical applications. “I hope that, together, we can build more resilient agricultural systems.”

Article posted in Careers for Faculty and Public