Soil microbial diversity is crucial for plant and planetary health

Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering and Bioeconomy (Leibniz ATB)

Time: Thursday, 27. January 2022, 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. (CET), subsequent deep dive 6:00 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.

Languages: English, German

Plants are the key component of a healthy diet providing food for a fast-growing world population. The plant microbiome and soil microbiome are interlinked, and both crucial for health and functioning of the holobiont. Beyond, they are important for planetary ecosystem functions and health issues.

Many current plant production practices result in pollution and contribute to loss of biodiversity, natural resources, and climate change. In the past, human activities influenced the interconnected microbiomes significantly. These shifts resulted in high pre- and post-harvest yield losses, drug-resistant plant and human pathogens, and a spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). This typically depleted microbiome signature of the Anthropocene is often followed by a dysbiosis, which leads to outbreaks of viruses, pests and pathogens.

The panelists have discussed the current knowledge about anthropogenic influences on the plant and interconnected microbiome. The aim was to inspire the development of solutions to restore and save plant- and soil-associated microbial diversity for the ecosystem and the closely connected human health.


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Alfred Grand is an organic farmer and entrepreneur from Austria. At his company VERMIGRAND Naturprodukte, earthworms are producing biohumus with a natural and diverse microbiome as well as peat free soil substrates. In 2018 his farm was developed into a research and demonstration farm. GRAND FARM is focusing on soil health, agroforestry and market gardening and cooperating with a range of national and international research institutions. Alfred is part of a several research projects, member of the Global Network of Lighthouse Farms, an ambassador for the European Innovation Partnership for Agriculture and for the EU-Mission Soil Deal. His market gardening project GRAND GARTEN was selected for the innovation pitch at the GFFA-Berlin 2022.

Panel Guests

Gabriele Berg studied biology, ecology and biotechnology at the universities in Rostock and Greifswald and obtained her PhD in 1995 in microbiology from Rostock University. In 2005 she became a full professor in environmental biotechnology at Graz University of Technology and in 2021 head of department at ATB and an additional professorship in Potsdam. Her interests are focused on microbiome research and translation of the results into new biotechnological and microbiome management concepts for health issues. From 2018 – 2020, she belonged to the Clarivate list of most influential researchers worldwide.

Lise Korsten is a Professor in food safety systems with a focus on fresh produce at the University of Pretoria (UP). She is also the Co-Director, Centre of Excellence Food Security, a national platform hosted between the University of Western Cape and UP. Her research focuses on sustainable agriculture, food security and postharvest innovation for food waste and loss reduction. She has worked on the control of postharvest diseases of subtropical fruit and has been a technical expert for the World Health Organisation, Food and Agricultural Organisation, South African National Accreditation System and other platforms. She has around 200 peer-reviewed publications and is editor for leading international journals such as Food Security, CABI etc. Lise Korsten is a member of the African Academy of Science and has won prizes and awards.

Kornelia Smalla is Vice Director of the Institute for Epidemiology and Pathogen Diagnostics at the Julius-Kühn Institut. Smalla has been conducting research the field of microbial ecology since 1991. Her research focuses on the interactions of pathogens and their microbial antagonists in the root zone of plants, but also on the diversity of these microbial communities and their resistome signatures and plasmids in the soil. Smalla studied chemistry at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, earned her doctorate in biochemistry and habilitated in microbiology. Smalla has currently been included in the Clarivate list of highly cited researchers.

Marcel van der Heijden is Professor for Agroecology and Plant Microbiome Interactions at the University of Zurich, Professor for Mycorrhiza Ecology at Utrecht University and he heads a research group at the Swiss Federal Research Institute Agroscope. His research focuses on plant-soil interactions, soil biodiversity, soil ecological engineering, and the development and evaluation of sustainable farming systems including organic and conservation agriculture. He is president of the international mycorrhiza society, Clarivate highly cited researcher and has published over 150 publications.

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