Rubén Alcázar «The economic cost of fertilisers is very low, but their ecological impact is extremely high»

Intensive agriculture and the excessive use of chemical fertilisers lead to significant environmental pollution. One of the most promising measures to achieve more sustainable crops is the use of biostimulants, and in this context, the group led by Dr. Rubén Alcázar, from the Faculty of Pharmacy and Food Sciences of the University of Barcelona (UB) is working on a project to develop a biostimulant based on the use of bacteria extracted from natural soils. The project has received a grant of 25,000 euros from the Valorisation Fund (FVal) within the framework of the Fund for the Promotion of Innovation (F2i) programme of the FBG and the UB.

What is the project about?

The project focuses on the development of a biostimulant product for plants. And what is a biostimulant? A biostimulant is a product used to stimulate plant growth by enhancing the absorption of nutrients. These biostimulants are interesting because, in principle, they make it possible to reduce the use of fertilisers while the plants absorb the same amount of nutrients. Nowadays, the overuse of fertilisers is causing many surface and groundwater contamination problems, and the goal, at the European and international level, is to reduce the impact of the use of fertilisers. This can be done by increasing the ability of plants to absorb nutrients using biostimulants. We are developing a biostimulant based on naturally occurring bacterial micro-organisms found in soils. In a previous project, we generated a collection of 187 bacteria, but a regulation that is now being implemented in Europe limits the types of bacteria we can use. Now we are working with rhizobacteria and, within our extensive collection, we have narrowed down our focus to a small number of bacteria of this genus.

On which crops could these bacteria be used?

These particular bacteria are known to enable nodulation and nitrogen fixation in leguminous plants. However, we are testing their biostimulant capacity on four other species: tomato, rapeseed, soybean, and rice. All four are extensive crops, as we are interested in the impact on agriculture. For these species we have selected five rhizobacteria that we knew worked in a model we developed in a previous project, and now we will test them to see if they work on plants of agronomic interest.

What are the benefits of biostimulants over fertilisers?

Our current situation calls for a shift towards more sustainable agriculture. Chemical fertilisers as we understand them now are not sustainable. They are basically used because their economic cost is very low, but their ecological impact is extremely high. There is also another important issue, climate change, which is increasingly resulting in extreme events. Frost, for example, is a huge problem, as an untimely frost can damage all crops. Well, some biostimulants, in addition to enhancing plant growth, also have a protective capacity. A biostimulant that combines both features would be a very good option for dealing with these extreme episodes, which are becoming ever more frequent.

What benefits would these biostimulants provide when compared to those already on the market?

Nowadays it is common to develop biostimulants from fungi. In contrast, we work with bacteria, because they are quicker to cultivate and significantly cheaper. It is true that there are some commercial biostimulant products based on bacteria, but not many. And there are even fewer that comply with current regulations. Moreover, we also decided not to use biostimulants of organic origin, because these are usually produced from organic waste, algae extracts, etc., and this poses a problem in terms of homogeneity of the raw materials, as it is not always easy to obtain the same starting product.

How are farmers responding to the introduction of biostimulants?

Well, we have seen very different responses. Farmers want something that works, and some of them prefer not to use GMOs. We are not applying GMOs here, what we have is a product that can be used on crops from the start, and therefore we hope for a positive reception. But, like everything in agriculture, it will be gradual, because switching from using a lot of fertilisers to using fewer, with the risk that this may entail for farmers in terms of lower production, is difficult. You have to convince them with experimental data. And through this project we will precisely demonstrate with data that this product works and that it provides a good alternative.

How will the F2I grant help to move the project forward?

Money is essential to develop the field tests we are performing on different crops. Until now we were conducting more basic research with a model plant. However, as we moved on to species of agronomic interest, we really needed a new source of funding to characterise them. In fact, this project had been at a standstill since the end of a Seed Grant we received, and now we have been able to resume it thanks to this Fund for the Promotion of Innovation (F2i) grant from the FBG.

What is the importance of knowledge transfer?

Knowledge transfer is perhaps one of the mainstays of research in research centres and universities. Historically, knowledge transfer has been somewhat overlooked; it was always better to publish a paper, but filing a patent was not so well regarded. Now this is changing, because it is becoming clear that it makes no sense to carry out excellent research without transferring it to society. For me this is very important, and I think we are witnessing a change of cycle.

In my opinion, knowledge transfer is essential for society to see that the public money granted to research centres and universities has a return, in addition to the generation of knowledge, which is also extremely important. With technologies, the return is clear —everyone has a smartphone with various apps, and so on— but in many other areas of research, such as plant biology, this return is not so evident. Making it evident with a product that can be used not only in agriculture but also at home —for instance in urban gardens—makes people appreciate it more. That is why I believe that knowledge transfer is one of the most important parts of research.

More about Rubén Alcázar

The best invention or advancement in history

For me, mass sequencing techniques, which allow us to sequence genomes in a matter of hours.

What would you like to see in the future?

I would like to see a more caring and slower-paced world. We live in a constant state of stress and at a speed that I think dehumanises us at times.

A future advancement that scares you

As I am very fond of progress, I don’t think I am afraid of any advancement. Progress should not be scary, what we should be afraid of is its misuse.

The FBG is…

one of the fundamental pillars of the research we carry out at our university. When I have a meeting with the FBG I really enjoy it. We professors sometimes don’t have knowledge transfer training, as it was not taught during the course of our studies. The FBG has an essential function, allowing us researchers to transform our knowledge into tangible results. I learn a lot from the FBG, and I really like it because it also makes me change my way of thinking, which is different from the way of thinking of the corporate world. Sometimes we lack this perspective that the FBG helps us to see, and they also assist us in transferring our results successfully.

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