PREVIOUSLY, ON ‘ROTHAMSTED’…
Hi. You must be new. Not to worry, as here’s a quick little recap of the first 180 seasons of 'Rothamsted Research'.
The Bones of an Idea
It all started way back in 1843, after our founder, Sir John Lawes, got interested in producing better crops.
His homemade experiments growing plants in his bedroom and dissolving bones in acid likely drove his poor widowed mother to tears, but they also led to the world’s first man-made fertiliser – Superphosphate – which Lawes exported from his factory in London.
Lawes’ fertiliser changed farming forever and bountiful harvests allowed cities to grow, which in turn, drove the industrial revolution
Fields of Dreams
But what about those early experiments?
Well, they soon outgrew the Manor House, becoming the experimental fields that Rothamsted Research was built around.
Many of these Victorian-era experiments are still running today.
Broadbalk, the world’s oldest experiment, is a five-hectare wheat field divided into plots to compare how different levels of fertilisers or manure impact on the soil and the crops grown on it.
The vital knowledge gleaned from Broadbalk and those other experiments have shaped the way we farm – and helped feed the world.
Like the Weather
In addition to his green fingers, Sir John also exhibited another British obsession: the weather.
But his interest went beyond just a topic for small talk – he wanted to know the impact weather had on crop yields and the spread of crop pests and diseases – so he built himself a weather station.
Rainfall and wind direction have been measured at Rothamsted every day since 1853, temperature since 1878 and sunshine since 1890 - one of the longest sets of weather data available in the UK.
Apart from the benefit to our farming research, such long-term weather data has been vital in allowing scientists to understand and track climate change, including the impact of greenhouse gases produced by farming.
By the 1920s, all these long-term experiments had created mountains of information. So much so, that it was getting hard to understand what it all meant.
The need to make sense of all this data led Rothamsted to employ a series of mathematicians and statisticians to create entirely new ways to analyse it.
These methods for looking at data developed at Rothamsted led to the birth of experimental design as used by countless numbers of scientists since – from archaeologists to zoologists.
But that work also birthed the various ways we handle data today – the algorithms, machine learning, and artificial intelligence that underpin our modern digital world. So, whether it’s your Spotify playlists or Google searches, the FTSE 100 or even NASA space missions, their foundations can be traced back to here.
Counting on Insects
Whether they’re pollinating (or destroying) our crops, insects play a major role in farming. So, its perhaps no surprise to learn Rothamsted monitors their movements closely. What you might not know, though, is that ours is the world’s largest and most important source of information on insect numbers.
Set up in 1964, the network of 90 UK traps monitors the movement of crop pests such as aphids and moths, as well as more beneficial insects, such as ladybirds. In total, it’s tracked over 1000 species and collected over 55 million individual insects during its sixty or so years.
With huge concerns over biodiversity loss, the Rothamsted Insect Survey has been vital in determining not only which UK insect species are in decline, but where and when changes occur.
During the 1960s and 70s, a range of pesticides were developed at Rothamsted, based on pyrethrin, a naturally occurring chemical found in chrysanthemum flowers.
Today, mosquito nets treated with pyrethroids are the only type recommended by the World Health Organisation and they have become the main tool in the international fight against malaria.
In this century alone, they are thought to have prevented hundreds of millions of infections across Africa, almost halving the number of people contracting the disease.
Whilst controversial at the time, Rothamsted led the development of the first GM crops during the 1980s. Public opinion had shifted since then, and our scientists’ research helped pave the way for numerous improvements to crops and food stuffs, as currently enjoyed by millions of consumers around the world.
We are still pioneers in the field of bioengineering, with Europe’s first trial of a gene edited wheat currently ongoing.
Using Our Loaf
This one might be the best thing to happen since sliced bread.
You probably know that brown bread is better for you – but most of us prefer to eat white. In 2020 we pinpointed the wheat genes responsible for the dietary fibre found in the part of the grain that white flour is made from – and can now more than double the content.
This new white flour is otherwise identical and makes a good quality white loaf and we are working with the food industry to get this into shops within the next few years.
The Theory of…Soil?
We’ve long known that adding organic material like manure to soil improves flood and drought resilience, climate control, and crop yields.
But it wasn’t until recently we understood why. Taking soil from our long-term experiments and using the latest X-ray imaging and DNA analyses, we discovered the addition of carbon (from the manure) led soil microbes to excrete a sticky substance which clumps the soil around them, allowing air and water to better travel through it.
Understanding how soil works will not just improve farming, but help us tackle floods, drought and climate change better.
Okay, well, that’s only really scratched the surface of who we are...but it’s a good place to start.