A scientist from the University of Sheffield has won a national award for his project developing climate ready beans to combat drought related crop losses in Mexican and Latin American agriculture.
Dr Caspar Chater, Marie Curie Fellow within the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (MBB) and a member of P3 at the University of Sheffield, received the 2018 Newton Prize at a ceremony in Mexico City for his research work taking place in Mexico.
Beans are very important to Mexico’s food security, but they are also highly sensitive to drought, which can cause up to 80 percent bean yield losses; and climate change is making the problem even worse. Seventy percent of Mexican farmers are smallholders with no irrigation, which makes them particularly vulnerable to droughts and climate change.
Researchers based at the University of Sheffield and the Institute of Biotechnology (IBT UNAM) in Mexico, have been trying to understand how bean plants respond to drought and carbon dioxide by adjusting their stomata (microscopic valves on the leaf surface that open and close). The researchers have found that reducing bean stomatal numbers could reduce plant water use by up to 40 per cent without affecting the yield; potentially saving up to three percent of Mexico’s entire agricultural water use.
Using this knowledge, the team wants to develop new high yielding bean varieties with better water use under drought conditions.
With over six million people employed in agriculture and five percent of the population undernourished, developing high yielding, drought resistant beans will benefit the Mexican economy and future food security, as well as people’s health and wellbeing.
Speaking after the ceremony, Dr Caspar Chater said: “The Newton Prize event was a great success and it was an honour to be part of it. It was such a great opportunity to showcase the work we are doing in MBB, the University of Sheffield, and in Mexico.
“I am over the moon that our project has won the Newton Prize and I’m really grateful to have the privilege of leading this project to improve bean yields under drought and future climate change. We really hope that our research will help improve the lives and food security of farmers and communities across Mexico, Latin America, and East Africa.”
The Newton Prize is an annual £1 million fund developed to showcase how UK science and innovation partnerships are helping to solve global development challenges. This year 140 Newton funded projects, fellowships or other awards applied for the Newton Prize. Five prizes of up to £200,000 each have been awarded to allow researchers to take their projects to the next level.
Winning the Newton Prize will enable Dr Chater’s team to increase the direct impact of its work in Mexico, by enabling a much larger and more interdisciplinary team of experts to tackle the issues of drought in bean agriculture and Mexican Food Security. The prize money will help bring together experts in plant drought stress, legume nitrogen fixation, and cutting-edge DNA sequencing and bioinformatics to fast track bean crop development. This will mean better bean yields for farmers in Mexico, Latin America, and Africa by getting the results out of the lab and into the field.
The Newton Prize was judged by an independent committee with expertise in the development sector, the Latin American region as well as science and innovation. It was chaired by Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society and Nobel Laureate. The committee reviewed the shortlisted applications, along with feedback from over 400 expert peer reviewers, and chose the winners.