Professor of Ecology, University of York, UK
Sue Hartley is Professor of Ecology at the University of York, UK and Director of the York Environmental Sustainability Institute. She is a community ecologist recognised internationally for her work on the interactions between organisms, particularly plants and their herbivores. She has studied plant-herbivore interactions from the sub-arctic to the tropical rainforest, published over 130 papers and trained over 30 PhD students. Currently, her research is focussed on using natural plant defences, particularly silicon, as a sustainable way to protect crops against pests.
Sue studied Biochemistry at the University of Oxford and has a PhD in Ecology from the University of York. She joined the University of Sussex in 2001, where she began her research on the use of silicon to increase crop resilience to drought, disease and insect pests. In 2010 she moved back to the University of York to become Director of the York Environmental Sustainability Institute, an innovative research partnership bringing together leading researchers from a broad range of disciplines to tackle key global challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and threats to food security.
Sue is a member of the BBSRC’s Strategic Advisory Panel on Agriculture and Food Security and Chair of their Sustainable Agriculture Research Innovation Club. In 2009 she delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, only the 4th woman to do since they were started in 1825. She is a fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, a trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and President of the British Ecological Society.
Globally around a quarter of crop yield is lost to pests and diseases, even with the use of modern methods of crop protection, whilst the production of sufficient food is also increasingly threatened by unpredictable and extreme weather. Given the projected increase in global demand for food and the impacts of a warmer climate on the spread and abundance of current and emerging pest species, we urgently need new sustainable ways to protect crops, ones which are not dependant on scarce resources to produce and which do not harm the beneficial organisms in agricultural ecosystems. We also need to make crops more resilient to drought as temperatures rise and weather patterns change. The ability of crops to defend against pests and survive drought has been reduced because we have selected varieties with high yield at the expense of other beneficial traits, but it remains in wild ancestors, offering the possibility of restoring these capabilities to our crops in future.
This talk explores the inter-disciplinary approaches which may provide new sustainable methods of crop protection and resilience to climate change. It will focus on the benefits of plant silicon, which accumulates to high levels in most food and forage grasses and provides protection against herbivore and pathogens, as well as mitigating the impacts of abiotic stresses such as drought and salinity. The talk presents recent findings on the environmental, phenotypic and genotypic determinants of silicon levels in plants: climate, levels of herbivory, plant traits such as stomatal density, and plant gene expression are key drivers, whilst crop domestication has had a relatively small impact. These advances in our understanding of the mechanisms underpinning the uptake and deposition of silicon-based defences could drive new ways of maintaining crop yields in the face of current threats.