Desertification continues to present a serious problem in many areas of Tunisia, contributing to water scarcity, lack of food production, and a steady exodus of people from rural communities to the cities. In a bid to reinvigorate arid arable land, the Biodesert project is researching the use of microbial biotechnology to solve agricultural problems in desert environments.
© Fotolia, 2012
Tunisia suffers from drought and aridity and, like others in Northern Africa, is one of the Mediterranean countries most vulnerable to climatic extremes. The region - and North African and eastern Mediterranean countries in particular - faces potentially catastrophic climate change in the future which could critically undermine sustainable development efforts.
While among the countries worst affected by desertification, Tunisia is also one of the most active in developing research efforts to counteract this ongoing problem. The University of Tunis El Manar, along with the University of Ioannina in Greece, joined with project coordinator the University of Milan to develop the FP7-funded Biodesert to research and exploit the activities of micro-organisms that inhabit extreme environments such as deserts.
Micro-organisms living in harsh environments possess important properties that could be exploited in agriculture for improving soil water retention, fertility and plant protection in arid ecosystems. By exploiting these properties, the partners hope to uncover new ways to help crops overcome the different kinds of stresses put on them by desertification, and to use ’Microbial resource management‘ (MRM) strategies to improve agricultural productivity.
The project has already uncovered a number of desert microbes showing potential to improve agriculture. "Besides a series of hardy microbes - extremophiles - inhabiting the inland and natural coastal saline lakes of Southern Tunisia, the Biodesert research team has characterised stone-dwelling micro-organisms that are capable of resisting stressful solar radiations together with exposure to toxic heavy metals," says project coordinator Prof. Daniele Daffonchio. "These micro-organisms are a potential source of novel enzymes and metabolites for many applications."
Supporting local expertise
A molecular microbial ecology research platform already exists in Tunisia, actively performing collaborative research for the development of straightforward MRM strategies for agriculture in arid environments. Biodesert aims to expand the existing platform and improve the related technical and research knowledge which, in turn, supports the development of a bio-economy in the region.
The project thus set out to create the conditions - purchasing advanced research equipment through EU funding and promoting knowledge exchange - for developing research in the field of microbial applied biotechnology. The team is working on harnessing the survival skills and adaptability of extremophiles living in the arid and desert environments which characterise Tunisia and North Africa, and to apply this to agricultural and environmental processes.
The project has already recorded a number of successes in this context, according to Prof. Daffonchio. "We are getting exciting results that provide perspectives in exploiting bacteria for promoting plant growth in arid ecosystems," he notes.
"For example, we have found a root-associated microbiome that is effective in enhancing the resistance of plants to water stress. We also have data and experiments in progress that show how the bacteria can promote plant growth and resist drought."
Through the recruitment of experienced researchers and a training programme in partner laboratories in Italy and Greece, the Tunisian team will be able to improve its research potential in the field of microbial biotechnology. Biodeserts dissemination strategy is already leading to improved knowledge being spread throughout the scientific community, Tunisian society and other North African countries, promoting the application of MRM for improving agriculture sustainability in the face of desertification.
"With the help of the two European partners from Italy and Greece, the team at the University of Tunis El Manar is now ready to develop advanced research in the area of desertification and the management of the microbial resource for improving agriculture in arid lands," confirms Prof. Daffonchio.