The Soils and the Environment group have five key research areas

The Group research areas include:

  1. Synchronisation of nutrients and water resources - This includes our work on greenhouse gas emission monitoring and mitigation, nitrogen and phosphorus use efficiency, soil-plant-atmosphere process modelling, high efficiency fertilizers, remote sensing and precision agriculture technologies.
  2. Recovery of resources from agricultural and urban wastesThis includes our work on recycling of urban food waste and agricultural waste.
  3. Fundamental and applied soil ecology - This includes understanding microbial community structure- function relationships, antimicrobial resistance in the environment, and suppression of soil-borne diseases.
  4. Agricultural economics, agricultural sustainability indicators and food credentials - This includes nitrogen assessment and nitrogen footprinting.
  5. Plant pathology

Synchronisation of nutrients and water resources

Efficient use of nutrients and water are key components of sustainable agriculture. Research within this theme looks at the development of enhanced efficiency fertilisers, precision agriculture and decision-making tools.

Current projects include:

1. New fertilizer technologies for sustained food security (ARC- LP160101417)

This project aims to provide fundamental research to develop next-generation fertiliser products that will improve nitrogen use efficiency, and reduce nitrogen losses in food production systems. It will achieve this goal through a multidisciplinary approach combining experts in synthetic and free radical chemistry, chemical engineering and soil science, with a strong commitment from a fertiliser industry partner. Society is facing the triple challenges of food security, environmental degradation and climate change. The availability of new, highly-efficient fertilisers is critical for addressing these challenges, and for the competitive advantage of the Australian fertiliser industry.

Project team: Prof Deli Chen (Project leader), Prof Geoff Stevens (co-lead), A/Prof Uta Wille (co-lead), Dr Kathryn Mumford, Dr Helen Suter, Dr Shu Kee Lam, Dr Hang Wei Hu and external partners.

Project team: Deli Chen (Project leader), Geoff Stevens (co-lead), Uta Wille (co-lead), Kathryn Mumford, Helen Suter, Raymond, Shu Kee Lam, Hangwei Hu and external partners

2. More Profit from Nitrogen – Improving dairy farm nitrogen efficiency using advanced technologies (DAWR, Dairy Australia, The University of Melbourne)

The project aims to improve nitrogen use efficiency in dairy systems for profitability and environmental benefit. Specifically, the project aims to understand N supply from mineralisation in rainfed and irrigated dairy pastures of SW Victoria, and to assess the suitability of more advanced measurement techniques such as hyperspectral imagery, for predicting N requirements and supply in these pastures. A tool will be developed to help farmers understand the drivers of mineralisation and to aid with decision making around N fertilisation, particularly in the autumn and spring seasons.

Project team: Helen Suter (Project leader), Oxana Belyaeva (Lead researcher), Deli Chen, Jim He, Alexis Pang and external partners.

3. Management of nutrients for improved profitability and sustainability of crop production in Central Myanmar (ACIAR-SMCN/2014/044)

It is widely recognised that the underperformance of crops in Myanmar is closely related to the inadequate supply of nutrients, particularly nitrogen. Myanmar rice growers have changed from being mainly subsistence to semi-subsistence (rice for home consumption with the excess sold to augment family income), and there are also good prospects for increasing rice exports. Therefore there are incentives to improve rice yields and profits. Similarly for maize, as a higher value crop, there is a strong incentive to improve production and profits. The overall aim of the project is to increase incomes and strengthen local food security of small-scale farmers and their families in central Myanmar by improved fertiliser use and associated crop management practices. Research will be complemented by capacity building of Myanmar agricultural scientists and academics to sustain and promote improved management practices, and resulting improvements to livelihoods, well into the future.

Project team: Deli Chen (co-lead), Jim He (co-lead), Bob Farquharson(co-lead), Tony Weatherley, Simon Eldridge (Lead researcher), Helen Suter, Ian Willett, Yong Li and external partners.

4. Long-term total greenhouse gas emissions from beef feedlots (funded by Meat and Livestock Australia)

It aims to measure annual emissions of a NH3, N2O, CH4 and CO2 using a range of measurement technologies (open path laser, open path FTIR, chambers, flux gradient and dispersion model). We assess the apportioning of those annual emissions to locations or systems within the feedlot (e.g. emissions associated with animals, feeding systems, manure management, lagoons or downwind atmospheric deposition), and validate existing models to develop best practice options or decision tools to abate emissions. Furthermore, we investigate the impacts of operational practices and processes on these emissions (critical point analysis) and understand system interdependency by integrating GHG and economic frameworks.

Project team: Deli Chen (Project leader), Mei Bai, Xiao xian Li, Trevor Coates, and external partners.

5. Optimising Nitrogen Recovery in Intensive Animal Production Facilities (Cooperative Research Centres Projects)

Intensive dairy, pork and poultry industries share the common practice of housing animals through all or part of their productive life. This leads to a concentration of animal waste, high nitrogen loss, detrimental environmental impacts, and health risks. The project will develop cost-effective commercial management of waste for long-term sustainable intensification of the industries, while increasing agricultural productivity, protecting natural resources, and producing high value fertilisers.

Project team: Deli Chen (co-lead), Jim He (co-lead), Helen Suter (co-lead), Tony Weatherley, Bhawana Bhatta, Mei Bai, Bob Farquharson, Richard Eckard, Frank Dunshea, Peter Scales, Yong Li, Raymond, Shu Kee Lam, Rui Liu, Ee Ling Ng and external partners.

Recently concluded projects include:

1. Mitigation of indirect greenhouse gases in intensive agricultural production systems with the use of inhibitors (Department of Agriculture, Incitec Pivot Limited)

The objectives of the project were to (i) quantify the ammonia volatilisation from two intensive agricultural production systems (dairy and vegetables) from application of fertilisers or, in the case of vegetables, manures, amended with urease and/or nitrification inhibitors; (ii) determine the fate of applied N through 15N studies; (iii) assess productivity benefits associated with the use of the urease and/or nitrification inhibitors; and (iv) quantify impacts on other loss pathways e.g. N2O.

Project team: Helen Suter (Project leader), Raymond, Shu Kee Lam (Lead researcher)

2. Reducing nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from applied nitrogen with nitrification inhibitors: Identification of the key drivers of performance (Department of Agriculture, Incitec Pivot Limited)

This project aimed to

  • Quantify the ability of nitrification inhibitors to reduce nitrification and N2O emissions from soils and identify the key soil properties affecting their efficacy;
  • Assess the potential productivity gains that can be achieved through the use of nitrification inhibitor amended fertilisers in field experiments in two southern Australian high loss production systems (dairy and high rainfall zone cropping); and
  • Develop a model algorithm that will describe the impact of nitrification inhibitors on nitrification and N2O emissions from fertilisers.

Project team: Deli Chen (Project leader), Helen Suter (Lead researcher).

Recovery of resources from agricultural and urban wastes

Agricultural production systems are sub-optimal in their waste management and materials regarded as wastes are often valuable co-products. Research within this theme looks at the production of stable, pathogen-free bioproducts, understanding nutrient dynamics of recycled agricultural wastes and the use of the bioproducts inoculated with beneficial microbes to suppress soil-borne pathogens.

Current projects include:

1. Optimising Nitrogen Recovery in Intensive Animal Production Facilities (Cooperative Research Centres Projects)

Intensive dairy, pork and poultry industries share the common practice of housing animals through all or part of their productive life. This leads to a concentration of animal waste, high nitrogen loss, detrimental environmental impacts, and health risks. The project will develop cost-effective commercial management of waste for long-term sustainable intensification of the industries, while increasing agricultural productivity, protecting natural resources, and producing high value fertilisers.

Project team: Deli Chen (co-lead), Jim He (co-lead), Helen Suter (co-lead), Tony Weatherley, Bhawana Bhatta, Mei Bai, Bob Farquharson, Richard Eckard, Frank Dunshea, Peter Scales, Yong Li, Raymond, Shu Kee Lam, Rui Liu, Ee Ling Ng and external partners.

Fundamental and applied soil ecology

Current projects include:

1. Understanding the transmission of antibiotic resistance in agro-ecosystems (ARC DP170103628, $399800)

The emerging spread of antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) represents a serious threat to human health. However, we have very limited knowledge about the pathways and mechanisms for transmission of ARGs in the environment. This project will use advanced molecular approaches to investigate all the major classes of ARGs in typical vegetable farms and animal manure, and to explore the major routes for transmission of ARGs from manure to soil and from rhizosphere to the vegetable surfaces and endophytic bacterial communities. The results will be integrated to identify the priority ARGs indicators with high likelihood of spread into food chain, and contribute to the development of management options to tackle environmental antibiotic resistance.

Project team: Jim He (Project leader), Hangwei Hu (Lead researcher), and external partners

2. Soil microbial indicators for efficient use of nitrification inhibitors (ARC LP160101134)

Nitrification inhibitors are one tool widely used to improve nitrogen fertiliser efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas nitrous oxide emissions. However their effectiveness is variable across soil types and one possible reason is the different microbial communities that exist in these soils. The project addresses the key knowledge gaps of interactions between the nitrification inhibitors and the soil functional microbial communities. The project aims to fundamentally improve our understanding of the efficiency and governing factors of the nitrification inhibitors in different agricultural soils, and thus provide guidance to develop sound management strategies to improve fertiliser nitrogen use efficiency in Australian Agricultural soils.

Project team: Jim He (Project leader), Helen Suter, Deli Chen and external partners. 

3. Unravelling the microbial mechanisms of soil nitrous oxide emissions (ARC DE150100870, $342000)

Soil ecosystems are believed to be the most dominant sources of global nitrous oxide emissions. However, mitigations of nitrous oxide are strongly hindered by lack of knowledge on microbial mechanisms underpinning its production. This project will integrate a range of advanced approaches to: (1) identify the key nitrogen cycling genes as best predictors of nitrous oxide in field studies; (2) disentangle relative contribution of microbial pathways to nitrous oxide in glasshouse and microcosm studies; and (3) validate these findings across various land-use types in Australia and China. This will provide a critical framework incorporating microbial data into the nitrous oxide prediction models for better mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Project team: Hangwei Hu (Project leader), Xiu Zhen Shi.

4. Reserving nitrogen in soils through microbial nitrate reduction to ammonium (ARC DP160101028, $248000)

This project aims to identify those microbes able to transform nitrate to ammonium and thus increase soil nitrogen conservation. More than 50 per cent of the nitrogen in fertilisers applied to soils is lost into the environment, which is both a financial loss to farmers and a main anthropogenic source of nitrogen pollution. Some microbes can transform nitrate into ammonium through dissimilatory reduction (DNRA) and thus increase soil nitrogen retention. However, the DNRA process and the responsible microbial groups remain largely unknown. This project plans to use isotope tracing and biomolecular approaches to identify those DNRA microbial groups and elucidate the DNRA reaction process. The findings may support the use of DNRA to improve soil nitrogen.

Project team: Jim He (Project leader), Deli Chen, Rui Liu, Eric Ireland.

Agricultural economics, sustainability indicators and food credentials

We carry out research to develop a new framework to embed soil management information into sustainability benchmark for agricultural products through the production of evidence based footprints. This work is of interest to all partners in the agricultural and food supply chains and will be informed through active engagement with SAI Platform (retail and supply chain partners) as well as growers.  

Current projects include:

1. Understanding the role of soil indices and efficiencies of fertilizers in developing N footprinting.

This project aims to take multiple approaches to understand how reactive nitrogen (Nr) issues interact with both human and natural factors. Australia has unique challenges in managing Nr issues associated with high energy and animal protein consumption, high coastal population density, and high level of exports of agricultural products. The major components are 1) The nitrogen (N) footprint: a consumer-based indicator to connect lifestyle choices (food and energy) with Nr release in Australia; 2) The N assessment: an overall N budget that includes the costs and benefits of Nr use in Australia; 3) The Nr release index: an index for benchmarking Australian agricultural products against other nations. The project will provide a framework for the future sustainable use of Nr for food, environment and climate change in Australia.

Project team: Deli Chen (Project leader), Baojing Gu, Raymond, Shu Kee Lam, Emma Liang, Baobao Pan

2. Management of nutrients for improved profitability and sustainability of crop production in Central Myanmar (ACIAR-SMCN/2014/044)

It is widely recognised that the underperformance of crops in Myanmar is closely related to the inadequate supply of nutrients, particularly nitrogen. Myanmar rice growers have changed from being mainly subsistence to semi-subsistence (rice for home consumption with the excess sold to augment family income), and there are also good prospects for increasing rice exports. Therefore there are incentives to improve rice yields and profits. Similarly for maize, as a higher value crop, there is a strong incentive to improve production and profits. The overall aim of the project is to increase incomes and strengthen local food security of small-scale farmers and their families in central Myanmar by improved fertiliser use and associated crop management practices. Research will be complemented by capacity building of Myanmar agricultural scientists and academics to sustain and promote improved management practices, and resulting improvements to livelihoods, well into the future.

Project team: Deli Chen (co-lead), Jim He (co-lead), Bob Farquharson (co-lead), Tony Weatherley, Simon Eldridge (Lead researcher), Helen Suter, Ian Willett, Yong Li and external partners.

Plant health and plant pathology

The plant health team has achieved exceptional distinction in advancing research in the following areas: genome mapping - development of the first molecular genome linkage maps of chickpea, lentil and the fungal pathogen Ascochyta rabiei; and the identification of major loci for plant disease resistance genes and fungal mating type genes.

We also work on plant pathology. Our work includes the evaluation of the biology, life cycle, pathotypes and population genetics of fungal pathogens involved in diseases of horticultural and agricultural crops including chili, potato, chickpea, lentil and pyrethrum. We use molecular plant pathology techniques to validate the taxonomy of fungal pathogens, development of fungal transformation systems, and identification of major genes involved in pathogenicity during infection. 

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