Scientists edge closer to unlocking cropping soil secrets

Author: Sharon Watt | Date: 23 May 2013

Pauline Mele

Scientists across Australia are making inroads into unlocking the biological secrets held within the nation’s cropping soils which could hold the key to higher yielding crops.

Through a pioneering initiative funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), considerable progress is being made in mapping the biological make-up of the nation’s arable soils and exploring their hidden potential to increase cropping profitability and sustainability.

Scientists and researchers involved in the GRDC’s Soil Biology Initiative will come together in Perth, Western Australia, next week (May 27 and 28) to discuss the advances they have achieved and expected future research outcomes.

Principal research scientist and Soil Biology Initiative co-ordinator, Associate Professor Pauline Mele, says the workshop in Perth will provide a snapshot of the insights already gained through the world-leading research, development and extension program.

“The workshop will also be an opportunity to consider the findings to date so we can develop clear and consistent messages that are of relevance and use to grain producers,” Assoc Prof Mele said. “It is important that we take what we now know out to the farming community so growers can gain a better understanding of how soils respond to management practices.”

Until recent times, little has been known about the composition of the living fraction of soils which support crop production across the nation, according to Assoc Prof Mele.           

“Our living soils are the engine room of grain production systems so it is essential that we have a greater appreciation of what they’re made of and how they function, and we use that knowledge to harness the biological potential of our soils in improving crop yields.”

Thousands of millions of individual organisms can be found in just one gram of soil, yet the majority of organisms have remained undiscovered. The GRDC has established the Soil Biology Initiative to explore what is seen as the “last frontier” for the grains industry,

“The arrival and rapid development of new technologies now means we are finally in a position to delve deep into the soil biological communities and see not only who is there but what they are doing, not only as individual species but as highly interactive communities,” Assoc Prof Mele said.  

The GRDC recognises that enormous scope exists for developing some new thinking about how soils should be managed and the practices that can be put in place to drive productivity and profitability.

Knowledge and understanding generated through the Soil Biology Initiative’s extensive suite of research projects is expected to lead to recommendations on how growers can best manage soils to maximise nutrient capture and defend against disease, resulting in less reliance on chemical controls and reduced inputs.

Assoc Prof Mele said investigations into why some soils are naturally suppressive to damaging soil-borne crop diseases caused by pathogens such as rhizoctonia and root lesion nematode, while others are susceptible, is an example of one area of research which is likely to have a direct impact future farming practices.

“Soils contain good guys and bad guys. We want to protect and encourage the good guys that create healthy soils and at the same time control and discourage the microbes that cause millions of dollars in lost cropping productivity every year.

“So we are looking at what beneficial microbial communities exist in those suppressive soils, why they are there and seeing how we might be able to stimulate greater disease suppression elsewhere through soil management practices,” she said.

The Soil Biology Initiative has involved a massive soil sampling and testing effort, the results from which will contribute to the development of new knowledge about the influence of soil microbes on the availability of nitrogen and soil phosphorus to crops.

The program is also expected to produce practical resources for grain growers across Australia.

“New tests which enable growers to validate the link between soil biota and crop performance are in the pipeline, and new microbial crop inoculant products with increased efficacy on broad acre crops are likely to be considered for development as a result of our research.

“We have already built a comprehensive and ever-growing bank of information and data that growers can access via the website,” Assoc Prof Mele said. “As part of the Soil Quality Monitoring Program, this website has been set up to enable growers to compare the quality of their soils with regional benchmarked data and it also provides information for growers on how to improve soil management practices.”

The five-year Soil Biology Initiative, due to be completed in 2014, builds on the knowledge generated from the previous GRDC-funded Soil Biology program that ran from 2002 to 2006.

The current RD&E program – involving around 90 researchers working on 15 projects at over 500 experimental/monitoring and focus sites across the nation’s cropping regions – is of national and international importance, according to Assoc Prof Mele.

“The research we are undertaking will provide the global scientific community and the grains industry with ground-breaking insights and understanding,” she said.

More information about GRDC’s Soil Biology Initiative is available via


Caption: Principal research scientist and Soil Biology Initiative co-ordinator, Associate Professor Pauline Mele, says soils are the engine room of grain production systems.

For Interviews

Assoc Prof Pauline Mele
0409 543935


Sharon Watt, Porter Novelli
0409 675100

GRDC Project Code UWA00138, DAV00102, DAS00111, UWA00142, DAV00120

Region National, North, South, West