Dr Jay Biernaskie is a Daphne Jackson Fellow who works on the use of evolutionary biology for sustainable intensification of agriculture.
Cereal crops like wheat will have a particularly important role in future food security, but their global yields have leveled off. With limited farmland, one of the most pressing global challenges is to increase food production without expanding the area of farmland.
We asked Jay about his work on one way we might be able to do it. Specifically, what does evolutionary biology say about how to design more productive and efficient crops?
“To maximize food production with a given area, it may seem obvious to plant very dense crops, as is done with modern cereal crops.
One problem with this, however, is that in doing so we create intense competition among plants for resources like sunlight, water, and nutrients.
Plants have generally evolved to successfully compete with their neighbors, so they have traits – like growing tall or having large leaves – that allow an individual to capture more resources for themselves at the expense of others. These competitive traits of plants are harmful to neighbors and ultimately harmful to the productivity of the group.
This means that when it comes to crops, competition between individual plants can reduce total food production. Thus, maximizing food production should involve minimizing competition within the crop.
One solution is to continue to plant dense crops, but to use plants with reduced competitiveness.
The most famous example is that of the “Green Revolution” dwarf cereals which were bred to be much shorter than their ancestors. Dwarf crops are very productive in dense monocultures, but they are always at risk of being overrun by taller, more competitive plants.
An alternative solution could take advantage of long-term adaptations of plants. My research asks if we can grow highly productive wheat crops that consist of fewer large individuals rather than many small individuals clustered together. The potential key to this is that many plants will grow in a way that will have traits favored for cooperation rather than competition.
By planting crops at very low density, each plant has the space to grow several genetically identical units (clones), such as a wheat plant with several stems (tillers) belonging to the same individual.
In this situation, neighboring stems of the same individual must not compete with each other; on the contrary, they should be highly adapted to live together cooperatively, in the same way that the cells of our body seem to work together for a common goal. I want to know if this potential for cooperation can increase total crop yields.
I am fascinated by complex adaptations, especially the different ways in which natural selection can shape the way individuals interact in groups.
I have spent most of my postdoctoral career so far studying social adjustment theory, using mathematical models to understand when and why traits are used for competition or cooperation.
A recent development in the field of social adaptation has been the appreciation that sociality, with the potential for conflict or cooperation, applies broadly to all group-living organisms, including plants.
Early in my career, I contributed to a larger effort to apply the theory of social adaptation to microbes like bacteria.
Bacteria are group-living (social) organisms which in some contexts will compete fiercely with their group mates, and in other contexts will cooperate with them.
Likewise, plants are social organisms with the potential for both competition and cooperation. I think knowing more about how plants cooperate is interesting in itself, and it also has huge implications for improving crop efficiency and productivity.
As such, I wanted to apply my expertise to study competition and group productivity in plants and ultimately have an impact on agriculture. This required a shift from theoretical evolutionary biology to plant science and agriculture.
Some of my work in this area has found unique evidence of the fundamental trade-off between individual competitiveness and group productivity in plants, and I hope this will help develop the field of evolutionary agroecology (or Darwinian agriculture). ).
My work now examines the potential benefits of clonality, using large-scale field trials and global wheat diversity, with the aim of informing new strategies for maximizing crop productivity.
Ever since I started to think seriously about a career, I wanted to do something to protect the natural environment.
At first I thought I might be a park ranger or something like that. But while studying biology in college, I became more interested in evolutionary biology and more philosophical than practical issues.
I am now happy to do research that uses evolutionary thinking to address both fundamental questions and practical problems like sustainable food production.
I find it inspiring that sustainable agriculture is actually crucial for protecting natural environments, especially if we can learn how to produce food efficiently with as little land as possible.