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Women in Science: Sustainable agriculture in Colombia

Postdoctoral Scientist Nasmille Larke-Mejía is researching to help improve agricultural practices and increase crop yield as well as impacting the socioeconomic landscape in Colombia, as part of our GROW initiative funded by GCRF-UKRI.

October 08, 2019

We speak to Postdoctoral Scientist Nasmille Larke-Mejía whose research is helping to improve agricultural practices and increase crop yield as well as impacting the socioeconomic landscape in Colombia, as part of our GROW initiative funded by GCRF-UKRI.

How did your GROW project come to life?

This project grew from the interest of multiple parties incorporating microbial work for GROW Colombia. With our programme lead Prof Federica Di Palma and other co-investigators and collaborators*, we identified the importance of including research and capacity building on this topic.

This led to my involvement in two GROW Colombia projects; to study the soil health of the Paramo environment (with Kew Gardens) and sugarcane plantations (with Cenicaña).

What’s the aim for Colombia and the UK?

The objective of our projects is to demonstrate the technical feasibility of using soil microbiomes as a bioindicator (living organism that gives us an idea of the health of an ecosystem) to monitor soil health and support the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices.

For example, in our project with Cenicaña, we hope to compare the diversity of soil microbiomes from both organic and convencionally grown sugarcane. The data will help to determine the effects of different agricultural practices, used for many years in Colombia, and determine the best practices to help sustain soil microbial diversity and the fertility of sugarcane plantations.

We will also generate capacity building and a network of scientists interested in the area of microbial ecology in Colombia. This will further encourage Colombian researchers from different areas to communicate and perform novel microbial ecology studies. We hope to offer the best methods and ways to tackle important biological questions and learn from research done in the country.

For EI, it is also important to expand the level of microbial ecology expertise in the institute, opening new lines of research with national and international cooperations.

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The objective of our projects is to demonstrate the technical feasibility of using soil microbiomes as a bioindicator to monitor soil health and support the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices.

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How do soils sustain ecosystems? What are the living organisms we are applying our research to?

Soils sustain ecosystem processes and services that are important for the survival of most living organisms. Soils contain a diverse and abundant number of organisms that interact and mediate ecosystem functions such as trophic chains and biochemical cycling.

Biota, in soils, are being threatened by global changes such as climate change, overuse of land, and chemical pollution that influence and change the balance in ecosystems - potentially impacting the sustainability of both natural and managed environments.

How do diverse microorganisms in soil interact with each other and plants?

The microbial ecology of soils is complex. Depending on the environment (climate, geography, fauna and flora present) and even the specific physical and chemical characteristics of the soils, the microbiota changes significantly.

Microorganisms interact in different ways with plants and with each other depending on the role(s) they play in that specific ecosystem. Researchers concentrate on studying the interactions between organisms, the role of specific organisms in an ecosystem or even organisms that fulfil a specific function in the ecosystem.

Microorganisms are thought to be everywhere and the environment selects the organisms who strive. The number of factors that determine the answer to this question is vast. Our research helps us understand the reason why they are present in a specific environment and how they interact with organisms around them.

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Depending on the environment (climate, geography, fauna and flora present) and even the specific physical and chemical characteristics of the soils, the microbiota changes significantly.

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What is the socioeconomic impact of the project?

Soil health can be reflected in the fertility and quality of an natural and/or managed ecosystem. The aim of our work is to use molecular techniques to assess the presence and relative abundance of microorganisms as an indicator of soil health. We hope to discover organisms that could aid in the cycling of certain nutrients to soils, crop growth and development, and hopefully those detoxifying the environment.

The success of most of our plant-based crops depends on the quality of the soil and beneficial biota that can sustain their growth. It is crucial that we understand the effects of conventional agricultural practices on soil biota and that we continuously investigate and learn what is the best practice that will provide prosperous and sustainable crops.

The research aims to deliver socioeconomic impact from improving sustainable sugarcane production in Colombia

Image: Sugarcane plantation in Valle del Cauca (Cauca Valley), Colombia

Socioeconomic impact of soil health on sustainable agriculture in Colombia

You have a workshop in Colombia coming up on Microbial ecology, could you tell us more about that?

The main objective of the event is to have a general overview of the microbial ecology research in Colombia and to generate bases for new collaborations. During the event, researchers from EI, School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia (Norwich, UK) and Colombian researchers will have the opportunity to discuss the variety of methods and approaches used to study microbial ecology.

Our plenary speaker will be Professor Colin Murrell from the University of East Anglia and past president of the international society for microbial ecology (ISME). This workshop will develop a scientific network of researchers working in the field of microbial ecology and will provide the opportunity to discuss their current and potential work with colleagues from different institutions.

We hope to give researchers the opportunity to brainstorm and generate ideas that will fuel the next few years of research in the area. We also hope to strengthen the relationships between Colombia and the UK, to hopefully establish future collaborations towards the development of grants that will be funded by funding bodies such as the Newton Fund and/or Colciencias.

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The main objective of the event is to have a general overview of the microbial ecology research in Colombia and to generate bases for new collaborations.

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What are the future plans for this project, what would you like to see?

The study of microbiomes has reached a wide array of interest from different disciplines in understanding how an ecosystem is connected. Interdisciplinary work, such as the GROW Colombia project, has also magnified how different minds and perspectives can enrich the scientific progress.

We are still in the planning stages of our research projects. In the future, we will sample, extract DNA, sequence and analyse metagenomes of the samples of interest from both projects. This information will be valuable in applying for future grants on this topic. I would like to see the microbial ecology line strengthen and succeed to improve agricultural practices in Colombia and help the bioeconomy for farmers and in local communities around the country.

The workshop in Colombia will be a great opportunity to interact with people working or interested in working in microbial ecology.To generate an active network of Colombian scientists for new impactful science. I would like to see a closer interaction/relationship between Colombia and the UK with the funding of new projects generated from this work.

Nasmille is working on a research project on sugarcane to help improve productivity and sustainability by increasing resilience to climate change and disease.

Image: Sugarcane grown with legumes (Vigna unguiculata) in the Cauca Valley, Colombia

Sugarcane grown with legumes (Vigna unguiculata)

Have you found being a native Colombian has helped with the projects’ reach and understanding?

Being a native Colombian has definitely helped in the interaction/communication with colleagues and in the understanding of how science is done in both countries. I am completely passionate about the project work, even if it is not directly my area of expertise.

My area of work is relatively new in Colombia so it has been an interesting challenge to communicate my science. Most of the reactions have been very positive and will hopefully open the doors towards new lines of interdisciplinary research.

What would be your ideal research project for GROW Colombia?

Climate change, land use and chemical pollution impact the sustainability of natural and managed ecosystems. Colombia is the second most diverse country in the world and global changes will affect the measurements of global biodiversity.

Microbial ecology has benefited immensely from the arrival of next-generation sequencing. As an environmental microbiologist, I am interested in the role of microorganisms in natural, extreme or managed environments. My ideal research project for GROW Colombia will combine the different research skills gained throughout my research career (relating phylogeny to function) in combination with computational genomic analysis.

Since global changes will continue to affect the environment and generate new challenges, I am interested in finding solutions using bio-prospection of microorganisms with unique traits that can help alleviate natural or anthropogenic driven effects. I believe a computational approach will be essential in the analysis and interpretation of ‘omics’ data.

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My ideal research project [would] combine the different research skills gained throughout my research career (relating phylogeny to function) in combination with computational genomic analysis.

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How else would you like to see genomics applied to Colombia’s biodiversity and bioeconomy?

Colombia’s diversity of pristine, unique environments and ecosystems deserve to be the focus of genomics research. The preservation of biodiversity is important for the long-term bioeconomy of the country and it will continue to attract tourism, research and business opportunities in the years to come.

Effective communication of research interests, opportunities and their potential will aid in the long-lasting effects of the GROW objectives and will leave the country with a legacy to protect. The answers to many of our man-made problems might already be present in these diversity hotspots, genomics can help us discover and utilise these resources.

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Colombia’s diversity of pristine, unique environments and ecosystems deserve to be the focus of genomics research.

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GROW Colombia Agricultural Diversity Programme co-investigators and collaborators

* Professor Federica Di Palma (PI) and Dr Jose De Vega from EI, Professor Colin Murrell, Mauricio Diazgranados from Kew Gardens, Dr John Jaime Riascos and Dr Fernando Muñoz from Cenicaña.

Article author

Nasmille Larke-Mejía

Postdoctoral Scientist