Emilia Hannula and Elly Morriën have been awarded the Teylers Foundation’s gold medal at a ceremony in Haarlem. The two soil researchers - who both did their PhD research at NIOO - won an essay competition set by the foundation. Their winning entry stresses the importance of fungi in grassland and agricultural fields for the storage of carbon in the soil.
The competition was launched by the Teylers Foundation's Scientific Society in 2017. The challenge for contestants, formulated by NIOO's then director Louise Vet, was to write "a critical study on optimising the sustainable multifunctionality of soils."
The Teylers Foundation was established in 1778 with the purpose of actively stimulating art and academia. The foundation's two societies continue to do so until this day through their essay competitions on important topical or academic themes. Competition winners still receive a medal made of real gold.
"Working and partying form healthy minds"
Winners Emilia Hannula and Elly Morriën are both from NIOO's pool of carefully nurtured young scientific talent. And both were based at NIOO when they decided to tackle the Teylers Foundation's challenge. In the meantime, Morriën has moved on to become an assistant professor in Amsterdam, and Hannula in Leiden. But both are still linked to NIOO as guest researchers.
The title of the duo's winning entry is "Working and partying form healthy minds". This was the motto of Johanna Westerdijk (1883-1961), the Netherlands' first woman professor who broke new scientific ground for the study of fungi.
Morriën and Hannula are likewise interested in fungi. By taking part in the competition, the duo wanted "to call attention to the importance of sustainable use of the soil...preserving all its functions." Compared to Westerdijk's day, they stressed, much has changed in the field thanks to developments such as genetic research.
An important function of soils that has been highlighted in recent years is its capacity for storing - sequestering - carbon, which helps to mitigate climate change. But the question is: how do you combine such vital functions of the soil with the focus in much of agriculture on only one single function: crop yield?
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Promise for the future
Fungi may be the solution, believe Morriën and Hannula. Fungi can promote the storage of carbon in soils without it necessarily going at the expense of agriculture: a thesis for which the two offer "convincing scientific arguments", according to the jury report read out during the ceremony by Louise Vet.
In her acceptance speech, Emilia Hannula listed some of the relatively simple things that can help fungi do their useful work: ploughing less frequently, for instance, and preventing overfertilisation. But "we're not there yet", and the duo said they consider the Teylers Foundation's gold medal as an incentive for the future first and foremost.
"We're young, we have another 30 years or so of good research still ahead of us. We're by no means done with this issue!"