Current projects

We are currently involved in a range of interdisciplinary research projects funded by UKRI, overseas grants agencies along with industry and charities that together represent a grant portfolio of over £20 million.

Ecological drivers of the evolution of symbiosis

May 2021 – April 2024

£526K – funded by NERC

Although beneficial symbioses are important, their evolution is hard to explain because it requires for once independent species to overcome their self-interest and become an integrated organism. A simple but so far untested idea for how stable beneficial symbioses might evolve is that they start off as exploitative interactions, wherein the host organism captures and exploits their symbiont for the beneficial function they provide. If the environment inside the host is sufficiently different to that experienced outside the host, the symbiont will over time adapt to this new niche and in so doing lose their ability to thrive outside the host due to trade-offs between the different traits required to survive in each environment. Through this process, the fitness interests of the host and symbiont species become aligned such that each now relies upon the other. Testing this idea in most symbiotic interactions is impossible because they originated millions of years ago and now the species cannot be separated to test for adaptation to free-living environments. 

In this project we overcome this challenge by using an experimentally tractable microbial symbiosis between the single-celled ciliate host Paramecium and the green alga Chlorella, which can either live inside the host cell (intracellular niche) or live freely in freshwater (extracellular niche). We will sample free-living and symbiotic algal populations from UK lakes, and compare their adaptation to key environmental parameters predicted to vary between the intracellular and extracellular niches. Using comparative genomics we will identify the patterns of genome divergence between the symbiotic and free-living algae and identify genetic adaptations to the symbiotic and free-living lifestyles. Finally, we will experimentally evolve symbiotic algae in the laboratory under free-living environmental conditions to test if this leads to the loss of their symbiotic ability through trade-offs. 

Together these experiments will advance our understanding of the biology of symbioses, helping to solve the long-standing evolutionary puzzle of how and why symbioses originate and evolve. In so doing the research will also provide insight into how symbioses and the important functions they perform can be maintained in natural and man-made ecosystems.

Co-Investigator with Principle Investigator Prof Mike Brockhurst (University of Manchester)

H3: Healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people

January 2021 – January 2026

£6.14 million – funded by UKRI as part of the Strategic Priorities Fund

Bringing together world-class researchers from Sheffield, Leeds, Bristol, Cambridge and City Universities, this H3 seeks to transform the UK food system ‘from the ground up’ via an integrated programme of interdisciplinary research on healthy soil, healthy food and healthy people. The H3 Consortium addresses the links between food production and consumption and takes a whole systems approach to identify workable paths towards a transformed UK food system, delivered via a series of interventions: on farm, in food manufacturing, distribution and retail, and in terms of the health implications and inequalities associated with food consumption in UK homes and communities.

Our approach is thoroughly interdisciplinary, combining world-class soil and plant scientists, health researchers, economists and social scientists. We take an integrated approach to the agri-food system, recognising its inherent complexity and addressing the governance challenges that arise from the rapidly changing regulatory landscape

The H3 Consortium is led by Professors Peter Jackson and Duncan Cameron who co-direct the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield. They are joined by a core team, comprising the work-package and crosscutting theme leaders, a wider group of co-investigators and PDRAs, and an experienced business development manager, focused on maximising the impact of our research in government, business and civil society.

Optimising feeds to support ecosystem-based aquaculture

February 2021 – January 2025

AU$1.4 million – funded by The Australian Research Council

This project aims to assess the global and local consequences of changing feeds in aquaculture by developing a new interdisciplinary sustainability assessment framework. The project expects to generate new methods to understand and predict local farm-to-ecosystem changes and global environmental footprints under contrasting feed and climate scenarios by integrating field data with novel experiments, modelling techniques and global mapping of terrestrial and marine feed raw materials and their impacts. Expected outcomes include new methods to assess ecological, social and economic trade-offs under different feeds to inform decision making in support of an ecosystem-based approach to aquaculture spanning global to local scales.

Co-Investigator with Principle Investigator Julia Blanchard (Institute of Marine and Antarctic Research, University of Tasmania, Australia)

Harnessing and integrating disease suppressive microbes and synthetic soils for sustainable, low input horticulture

June 2020 – May 2023

£1.57 million – funded by UKRI as part of the Strategic Priorities Fund Bacterial Plant Diseases programme.

With current pesticides rapidly becoming ineffective or facing constraints on their use, novel mechanisms for controlling bacterial diseases in covered horticultural systems are urgently required to safeguard future productivity. The overarching aim of this project is to develop a multi-intervention framework for the protection of fruit and vegetable crops against pests and diseases by exploiting the disease-suppressing capacity of the plant’s own immune system and its interaction with beneficial soil microbes while deploying sustainable, novel substrates that enhance populations of disease suppressive sol microbes for horticulture. The principal objective is to obtain a deep understanding of the microbial functions through which plant-beneficial microbes in the root microbiome promote growth and suppress disease, and to exploit this knowledge in innovative cropping systems to enhance production. We will focus on the tomato and Rhizobium radiobacter biovar 1 root mat disease pathosystem as a tractable and commercially applicable model. We will develop an integrated strategy that translates the latest evidence from basic research into effective crop protection methods. Principal investigator with co-investigators Tim Daniell, Tony Ryan, Jurriaan Ton, Jonathan Leake, Ellie Harrison, Helen Hipperson, Heather Walker & Steve Rolfe

Signals in the soil: Real-time and Continuous Monitoring of Phosphates in the Soil with Graphene-Based Printed Sensor Arrays

January 2020 – January 2023

£789K – funded by NERC and the NSF (USA)

Phosphorus, one of the major three nutrients for plants, is required for plant growth, and it serves as an indicator for global environmental sustainability. It is important to understand the variations of phosphate in soils and soil-water systems in order to address a number of global challenges such as food production and regulating fertilizer applications for crops grown in various soil conditions and climate regimes. The goal of this research project is to use the latest graphene-based technology to develop a low-cost sensor capable of real-time monitoring of the phosphorus content in soil. This collaborative project between researchers at the U.S. institutions of Kansas State University and the University of Alabama at Huntsville, and the U.K. institution of the University of Sheffield, will be conducted by an interdisciplinary team with expertise in soil and water science, geology, electrical engineering, and the fundamental chemistry and physics of soil-graphene interactions. Development of such sensors will enable farmers to choose the right amount of fertiliser to apply to the fields. Co-investigator and work package lead with Adrien Chauvet (co-PI) and Suprem Das (co-PI, Kansas State University, USA).

PARAMO – Provisioning of ecosystem services And cultuRAl values in the MOntane tropics

July 2018 – July 2021

£1.24 million – funded by NERC (Newton Fund)

Project website and team

The tropics harbour more species than anywhere else on Earth. This biodiversity supports a number of ecosystem services — benefits that humankind derives from the natural environment, including water, nutrient-rich soils and pest-control by predatory birds and insects — that are essential for human well-being, and it also underpins many cultural attachments that people have with nature. However, the disturbance of natural habitats and their conversion for other uses, such as farming, are driving a global extinction crisis. This project takes an innovative approach to understand the links between biodiversity and ecosystem services and cultural provision using the Colombian Andes as a case study. The Colombian Andes are one of the most biodiversity rich places on Earth, their soils contain carbon-rich peats, ecosystem services are derived for the majority of Colombia’s human population, and these are rich in cultural values on both a personal and community level. In spite of this tremendous wealth, hostilities in Colombia have long hampered research to understand eco-cultural relationships. The reduction in hostilities creates a policy window to impact the development of a sustainable bioeconomy, i.e. the economic exploitation of its biological resources, underpinned by Colombia’s high biodiversity. There are inherent environmental and cultural risks of capitalising upon biodiversity, which could drive negative outcomes for conservation or society. Our multidisciplinary programme will answer the major, unanswered question of how best to incorporate and optimise the combination of biodiversity, ecosystem service, and cultural values within natural resource management. In doing so, we will transform the role of cultural heritage and human-environmental experiential knowledge within the design of conservation programmes. Co-investigator and work package lead with Dave Edwards (PI), Tim Daniell and Mailyn Gonzalez (Alexander Von Humboldt Institute, Bogotá)

Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India

November 2019 – October 2022

£166K – funded by AHRC (GCRF)

Based in the former princely capital of Rampur in north India, Tarana Khan is a local historian and novelist working to preserve her city’s unique heritage linked to food, literature and culture. A former teacher, her motivation is the city’s youth who retain a strong sense of their Rampuri heritage, even as it disappears around them. Recognizing the urgency, she began collecting oral histories from older residents known for their connections to the ‘old world’. She also began exploring the famed Rampur Raza Library, with its rich and sizeable collection of Urdu and Persian manuscripts, for historic cookbooks. One Rampuri speciality, yakhni pulao – now cooked only to a basic recipe – appeared in fifty or more styles. Seeking to recreate these historic recipes, she worked with a khansama, or cook, from an old cheffing family to translate measures, procedures and ingredients into modern equivalents. A particular problem was the disappearance of older varieties of rice that had become extinct with the spread of high-yielding hybrid types. Their distinct aroma and taste remained alive only in the culinary memories of the older generation, who still yearn for tilak chandan and other small-grained local varieties previously grown in the rice-belt around Rampur. Co-investigator with Siobhan Lambert-Hurley (PI)

Desert Garden – Jordan

2015 – ongoing

£80K per year to run and funded by charitable donations, if you would like to help us , please click here

Project Website

The Desert Garden project, is a unique project born out of innovative science and is giving families displaced by war the opportunity to grow fresh food in the desert using discarded mattresses.

In 2018, Sheffield scientists travelled more than 3,000 miles – to the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp – to put their pioneering research into solving the issue of food shortages for thousands of people, living in the desert in Jordan.

The technique used to grow food in the desert by these Sheffield Scientists, who are based in the University’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures and at the University’s Institute of Sustainable Food, has been developed in their Sheffield labs for many years.

As world-leading experts in hydroponics systems, the team has been using foam from discarded mattresses found in the refugee camp, as a growing medium for the crops in a hydroponic system. In normal agricultural processes, soil supports a plant’s roots, but in a hydroponics system plants are supported artificially and suspended away from the ground. Collaboration with UNHCR Za’atari and Tony Ryan OBE (project leader)

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