Olivia Wilkins, a post-doctoral fellow in NYU’s Center for Genomics and Systems Biology (CGSB), has been named a winner of the Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) Ideas Challenge.
The challenge, co-funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, asked participants from around the world to describe, in 100 words or fewer, the most pressing, novel issues facing small-holder farms--farms typically the size of a football field or smaller--in developing countries.
“These prize-winning challenges range from the global to the local and across diverse disciplines,” said John Wingfield, NSF’s assistant director for biological sciences. “What they have in common is that they all represent topics that have not yet had the attention or funding to prompt a solution. The reality is that solving any of these challenges in a changing world would have a dramatic impact on the lives of millions of small-holder farmers around the globe.”
“Innovation in agricultural research can create new pathways out of poverty for millions of families who rely on farming for their food and income,” added Rob Horsch, deputy director in the Agricultural Development program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We're excited to partner with NSF and the global research community to focus innovation on the needs of small-holder farmers who are lifting themselves and their communities out of poverty.”
Wilkins’ proposal, which earned her a $10,000 cash prize, was one of 13 selected. These ideas will now be used as targets for the second part of the competition, in which researchers will offer proposals to address the challenges posed by the first-round winners.
Wilkins focused on a particular problem facing small-holder farms—insufficient availability of soil nutrients, which limits crop yield in developing countries. This limitation inhibits plants’ ability to take in the nutrients necessary for growth.
Her challenge called upon scientists to develop ways to enrich the soil surrounding these crops, which could provide a cost-effective way for farmers to enhance production under unfavorable conditions.
“Chemical fertilizers are often beyond the means small-holder famers,” explained Wilkins. “However, plants and soil microbes naturally form mutually beneficial relationships in the soil--soil microbes, like bacteria and fungus, are able to unlock some soil nutrients that are normally inaccessible to plants. By ‘tuning’ the microbial population in soil to unlock nutrients that the plants need, we may be able to help farmers make the most nutrients that are already present in the soil.”