Investigating the ecology and evolution of microorganisms to improve soil amendments for farming

With the world’s population projected to top 9.8 billion by 2050, many scientists are searching for ways to better our agricultural systems. Focusing on the soil microbiome, Dr. Megan Rúa is researching how microorganisms interact with each other and with plants to help farmers develop new tools for growing crops. View Halo Profile >>

Tell us about your research

Research in my lab focuses on understanding the ecological and evolutionary drivers which shape the soil microbiome. To address these questions, we use a variety of techniques including laboratory, greenhouse and field investigations as well as experimental procedures such as advanced techniques in genomics and data analysis. Outcomes from this work are important for understanding how we can improve plant performance when plants are experiencing biotic or abiotic stresses, such as pathogen infection or nutrient limitation. 

Research in my lab focuses on understanding the ecological and evolutionary drivers which shape the soil microbiome.

Can you explain that to a non-scientist?

There are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on earth! One of the key attributes that makes soils unhealthy is an absence of such microorganisms. Our research tackles this problem in two ways. First, we seek to increase the availability and function of microorganisms in unhealthy soils by understanding how microorganisms interact to improve plant performance. Second, we identify the microorganisms present in soil amendments to understand how they can improve agricultural production. With this data, our research aims to identify and remedy the potential hazards and limitations of using soil amendments for farming.

There are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on earth! One of the key attributes that makes soils unhealthy is an absence of such microorganisms.

Why did you choose this area of research?

I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world but, like many students, I was pushed to consider scientific topics important for human health and not the ecology and evolutionary fields I was interested in.  Still, as part of my undergraduate biological sciences degree, I continued to take such classes and began to understand how important species interactions were for shaping the world around me. By my senior year I had found a home working in a laboratory combining ecology, evolution and microbiology to understand how microbes influence a plant’s ability to thrive. I pursued this field as a graduate student and post-doctoral research fellow and now lead a lab focusing on how the soil microbiome can be used to improve plant performance and ultimately agricultural production.

How could your Grants4Ag project someday impact #healthforall #hungerfornone?

Despite declining fertility levels, 83 million people are added to the world’s population every year. This means the current world population of 7.6 billion people is projected to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050. To keep pace with these population projections, agricultural production must increase 70 percent by 2050 compared to 2005 levels, contributing to an increase in global demand for food crops. However, embedded within this increased need for food crops is the need for agricultural production systems which minimize environmental impacts while maintaining nutritional value and economic feasibility for farmers. Therefore, agricultural production techniques that promote environmentally beneficial farming and maintain natural resources while still proving economically viable are receiving increasing attention.