Meet the researcher creating healthier soil, healthier plants and healthier people

María Hernández-Soriano is a postdoctoral scientist at the John Innes Centre

María Hernández-Soriano is a postdoctoral scientist at the John Innes Centre - Credit: Fred Warren

María Hernández-Soriano is a postdoctoral scientist at the John Innes Centre at Norwich Research Park. Find out how her research on historic wheat varieties is unearthing how healthier soil creates healthier plants, which improves human health, food production and environmental sustainability.

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

María paints with soil pigments collected from the North Norfolk coast

María paints with soil pigments collected from the North Norfolk coast. You can follow her on Instagram @minos_atelier - Credit: Fred Warren

What does your role entail?

I am a researcher focused on agricultural production and how to maintain soil and plant health. My role is to develop field experiments, collect data, analyse it and publish scientific papers. It also involves supervising students, presenting at conferences, meeting with partners and completing stakeholder outreach and engagement activities.

I recently launched a consortium called WISH-ROOTS which will run field trials in six different countries to explore the capabilities of roots to improve soil health. Soil is vital for us all. It is not an infinite resource – and it is being lost. We are looking at how to preserve and improve it. Healthier soil leads to healthier plants which result in healthier people.

How do you conduct your research?

I extract and sequence the DNA of bacteria that live in soil and use software to interpret the functions of microbes living in the rhizosphere, which is the region of soil in the vicinity of plant roots influenced by their chemistry. I also use image analysis to look at the architecture of plant roots.

There are many soil processes that the plant controls by tuning the soil microbiome. Roots release chemical compounds, hormones, sugars and enzymes into the soil, which modify the behaviour of microbes. These processes are key to the survival of both soil and plants. My research aims to promote these beneficial processes by identifying wheat varieties that are capable of releasing compounds through the roots to keep the surrounding soil healthy. This will help ensure we can keep producing food while protecting the environment.

Why are you focusing on wheat?

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Wheat is one of our main food sources and provides a consistent source of income for many producers across the world. The production of wheat also has a significant impact on the environment and the soil.

I am working with the A. E. Watkins Landrace Cultivar Collection, a unique resource at John Innes Centre, which has hundreds of samples of domesticated wheat from all over the world. Wheat landraces are traditional wheat varieties grown before the development of modern plant breeding cultivars from the 1950s onwards. These varieties pre-date modern breeding and agricultural practices so have not been exposed to modern chemical fertilisers, for example. They provide a pool of possibilities because they might have genetic traits that have been lost in modern wheat varieties.

I have been working with a landrace from Persia (modern-day Iran), which can control nitrogen losses from fertilisers. That's something we want to identify and understand as it could be useful to breed this trait into modern varieties. For the next three years, I will be exploring this and other traits in collaboration with the partners in the WISH-ROOTS consortium, funded by BBSRC and supported by EJP Soil, a European programme that brings together scientists across the world to improve agricultural soils.

Why did you decide to pursue science as a career?

Since my childhood, I wanted to understand how nature works. I remember the first time I learned about the periodic table in my chemistry classes. Suddenly, it all made sense to me. From rocks to complex forms of life like humans, everything around us is based on these 118 elements and how they react. I always keep one with me!

My interest in soil probably came from my grandpa. I loved spending summers in his garden, looking at the soil in my hands and wondering what was going on.

How did you end up working in Norwich?

I grew up in Granada in Spain but completed my PhD at KU Leuven in Belgium. I then spent a year in the United States as a Fulbright Scholar at North Carolina State University, which has one of the oldest soil science departments in the US.

I became a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia, where I met my partner, who also has a background in biochemistry. He wanted to move to the Quadram Institute in Norwich and I had been dreaming of working at the John Innes Centre because it is famous for plant science. But I fell ill and had to stop working from September 2016 until March 2019.

I was awarded a fellowship with the Daphne Jackson Trust, which supports people that have had a career break. This enabled me to join the John Innes Centre, a unique place to study plant and soil interactions. I cannot thank them enough – it was not only an opportunity to get back to science, but also to reinvent my career.

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

The facilities provide fantastic support to carry out science. I feel privileged because of the way I can do my work. I love being able to interact with all sorts of scientists. Everyone here is very supportive – it is an engaging, enriching and lively community. The possibilities for collaboration are endless. We are constantly trying to put different fields and expertise together, which is what makes the projects so interesting and valuable.

What do you get up to when you are not working?

I like to escape to the beach. The Cromer cliffs have fantastic geology and when I go walking on the Norfolk coast I collect soil pigments – reds, yellows, blacks. Art is my other passion and I have a home studio in which I like to paint. That’s how I spent most of my lockdowns: painting animals with soil pigments. I also love wildlife, so having the seals only 45 minutes from here is all I need!

María Hernández-Soriano is a postdoctoral scientist at the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park. Follow her work at www.wishroots-ejpsoil.net