Rothamsted Research

where knowledge grows

Delivering Sustainable Systems

We believe that it is possible to provide secure and increasing amounts of healthy food and make a contribution to the supply of renewable energy without reducing other ecosystem services. We will aim to show how such systems can be delivered through research into better ways of managing pest control, biodiversity, grazed grassland and soils with the overall goal of designing and quantifying sustainable systems.

This strategic theme will be delivered through four programmes:

  1. Sustainable Crop Protection. We will investigate the appearance of new pest and pathogen species, the emergence of new indigenous problem species genotypes and use our knowledge of the ecological, genetic and molecular basis of adaptive traits to prolong the lifespan of chemical crop protection tactics in the face of selection pressure (1).This will build on our existing work on the primary mechanisms of resistance and mathematical models of resistance evolution so this fundamental knowledge (2) can be translated into strategies for the better deployment of agrochemicals. We will also develop alternatives to traditional pest control by exploiting our long-established expertise in chemical ecology and the ecology of pests with their natural enemies (e.g. 3), supported by mathematical models for novel crop protection tactics within an ecologically-based framework to ensure their sustainability (4).
  2. Optimisation of nutrients in soil-plant systems. We will exploit systems biology techniques ('omics', e.g. 5) to understand soil ecosystem function, investigating nutrients and pollutants in the soil, as well as carbon and nutrient cycling above and below ground through soil-water and soil-air interactions in agricultural systems. We will encompass modelling approaches to explore and resolve possible conflicting requirements of reliable agricultural and energy production and natural resource management. This work will also investigate physically-based predictive indicators of soil structural function. This will provide new knowledge on key soil physical parameters that are important to sustainability and act as a central driver of both losses to air and water, as well as nutrient cycling in soils (6).
  3. Movement and Spatial Ecology in Agricultural Landscapes. We will gain a better understanding of the effects of spatial scale on the ecological functions of pollinators, pests and their natural enemies by investigating how they search for, find, and utilise patchily distributed resources. We have a unique research capability (7, 8) to study each of these processes both above and below ground, at the relevant spatial scale, from microns (10-6 m) through farms (103 m) and agricultural landscapes (104 m) to trans-continental insect migration (106 m). Such information is essential to predict invertebrate distributions in farmland. We can then target pest control strategies, and optimise ecosystem services that other invertebrates provide (e.g. pollination).
  4. Quantifying Sustainability. We will determine an objective means of assessing sustainability, which still has no clear quantifiable definition. The focus will be on developing novel mathematical tools with which to quantify the sustainability of agroecosystems (9). This has the potential to act as a unifying framework (10) which can be applied to much of the work in the overall Rothamsted Research Science Strategy.


  1. Puinean, A. M., Foster, S. P., Oliphant, L., Denholm, I.,Field, L. M., Millar, N. S., Williamson, M. S. & Bass, C. (2010). Amplification of a cytochrome P450 gene is associated with resistance to neonicotinoid insecticides in the aphid Myzus persicae. PLOS Genetics 6,e1000999.
  2. Bass, C., Puinean, A. M., Andrews, M., Cutler, P., Daniels, M., Paul, V. L., Crossthwaite, A. J., Denholm, I., Field, L. M., Foster, S. P., Lind, R., Williamson, M. S. & Slater, R. (2011) Mutation of a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor β subunit is associated with resistance to neonicotinoid insecticides in the aphid Myzus persicae. BMC Neuroscience 12, 51.
  3. Tamiru, A., Bruce, T., Woodcock, C., Caulfield, J., Midega, C., Ogol, C., Mayon, P., Birkett, M., Pickett, J. & Khan, Z. (2011) Maize landraces recruit egg and larval parasitoids in response to egg deposition by a herbivore. Ecology Letters 14, 1075-1083.
  4. Pickett, J. A., Hamilton, M. L., Hooper, A. M., Khan, Z. R. & Midega, C. A. O. (2010) Companion cropping to manage parasitic plants. Annual Review of Phytopathology 48,161-177.
  5. Vogel, T. M., Hirsch, P. R., Simonet, P., Jansson, J. K.,Tiedje, J. M., van Elsas, J. D., Nalin, R., Philippot, L. & Bailey, M. J. (2009). Advantages of the metagenomic approach for soil exploration. Nature Reviews Microbiology 7, 756-757
  6. Guo, J. H., Liu, X. J., Zhang, Y., Shen, L. J.,Han, W. X., Zhang, W. F., Christie, P., Goulding, K. W. T., Vitousek, P. M. & Zhang, F. S. (2010). Significant acidification in major Chinese croplands. Science 327,1008-1010.
  7. Chapman, J. W., Nesbit, R. L., Burgin, L. E., Reynolds, D. R., Smith, A. D., Middleton, D. R. & Hill, J. K. (2010). Flight orientation behaviors promote optimal migration trajectories in high-flying insects. Science 327, 682-685.
  8. Ovaskainen, O., Smith, A. D., Osborne, J. L., Reynolds, D. R.,Carreck, N. L., Martin, A. P., Niitepold, K. & Hanski, I. (2008). Tracking butterfly movements with harmonic radar reveals an effect of population age on movement distance.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 105,19090-19095.
  9. Glendining, M. J., Dailey, A. G., Williams, A. G., van Evert, F. K., Goulding, K. W. T. & Whitmore, A. P. (2009). Is it possible to increase the sustainability of arable and ruminant agriculture by reducing inputs? Agricultural Systems 99,117-125.
  10. Wu, L., McGechan , M. B.,McRoberts N. (2007) SPACSYS: Integration of a 3D root architecture component to carbon, nitrogen and water cycling-model description. Ecological Modelling 200, 343-359.