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Great British bioscience pioneers – Professor Keith Goulding

Great British Bioscience Pioneers – Professor Keith Goulding - 21 August 2014. Copyright: Rothamsted Research
Highlights from: 20 years of bioscience

Continuing our series on Great British bioscience pioneers, we profile Professor Keith Goulding, a soil scientist at Rothamsted Research, whose studies into nitrogen cycling and greenhouse gas emissions have helped to guide government policy on reducing the environmental impacts of farmland. His contribution to the science that underpinned the award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was recognised by the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change.

How did your bioscience career first begin?

I grew up on a mixed arable-dairy farm on the edge of the Cotswold Hills. I can't say that I was enthusiastic about milking cows twice a day but, whilst not wanting to be a farmer, I was eager to work in agriculture. My career in bioscience has enabled me to do exactly that, researching sustainable agriculture and translating that research into practical support for farmers and the agricultural community in its widest sense.

My first degree was in chemistry and mathematics at the University of Exeter. I then took an MSc in soil chemistry at the University of Reading under the guidance of Dennis Greenland and EW (Walter) Russell. I joined the staff at Rothamsted in 1974 and studied for a PhD in surface chemistry while working full-time, completing it in 1980.

My early training and career has made me well aware of the importance of mathematics in the biosciences: I was able to use the maths I had acquired for fitting equations to graphs and writing computer code to create mathematical models of physico-chemical reactions within soils. My first research interests were the supply of potassium and phosphorus to crop plants; I then worked on acid rain, soil acidification and liming before moving on to nitrogen cycling. Soil biology gradually became a more prominent interest, but never without reference to the chemical and physical properties of soils.

What are you working on now?

I recently relinquished my roles as Head of the Sustainable Soils and Grassland Systems Department and as research leader of the Institute Strategic Programme Grant (ISPG) 'Delivering Sustainable Systems'. I hope that this will allow me to spend much more time on my research. With that in mind, I have been trying to learn some molecular biology! My research into nitrogen cycling in the 1980s and '90s focussed on measuring and reducing losses to the environment. More recently, I have been working with Penny Hirsch's group, unravelling the molecular basis of the process of denitrification. Our hypothesis is that an understanding of this would enable better management of land to either stop the denitrification process or push it through to benign dinitrogen gas and so close the nitrogen cycle. For the former, new developments in the use of natural plant inhibitors with John Pickett and our chemical ecologists are proving particularly exciting.

I also manage two BBSRC national capabilities within the institute: one relatively new, the North Wyke Farm Platform, the other, the Long-term Experiments based on the Rothamsted site, which are the world's longest-running agronomic experiments. The Long-term Experiments have played a critical and uniquely informative role in almost every aspect of my research for most of my working life, but to have had responsibility for them over the past 11 years is a very special way to conclude my career.

What advances have you seen in your chosen field in the last 20 years?

I began my soil science research using flame photometry to manually analyse extractable potassium from soils, one sample at a time. The fully automated, very rapid and precise analytical methods such asoptical emission spectrometry (ICP-OES) that we now routinely use to analyse multiple ions has greatly facilitated soil science.

The radioactive tracers for potassium and phosphorus that I used have, in most cases, been superseded by safer, stable isotope techniques and most labs have a mass spectrometer for studying nutrient cycling. We have automated gas chromatographs for greenhouse gas analysis (in the 1980s I used a system put together by staff at the Letcombe Laboratory that covered about 10 metres of bench space) and new techniques such as Eddy Covariance that overcome the problems of multiple sampling and heterogeneity.

In that context, soil science has always involved sampling and analysis, with the associated problems of soil heterogeneity and the consequential, sometimes large, variation in results. Developments in remote sensing are beginning to offer resource-efficient and more precise solutions to this. In particular, the very recent application of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or Drones) to soil analysis is a great step forward. We have been using a UAV, in collaboration with a group from the University of Leuven in Belgium, to map soil carbon on the Broadbalk Long-term Experiment.

Copyright: Rothamsted Research
Filming with the BBC on the Broadbalk Long-term Experiment. Copyright: Rothamsted Research

Despite these achievements, I think that the most significant advance has been the application of molecular biology to soils. In the 1970s and '80s, David Jenkinson, David Powlson and Phil Brookes developed methods for quantifying the soil microbial biomass - so beginning research into the living mass of soil microorganisms that perform so many vital functions. Molecular biology is enabling us to open this 'black box', studying function and linking it to process. In this context the 'Terragenome' project, led by the International Soil Metagenome Sequencing Consortium, has chosen soil from the Park Grass Long-term Experiment for its initial investigation.

What are the five key bioscience milestones that you've been part of and when did these occur?

  • 1990 Demonstrated that the amount of nitrogen deposited to land was much larger than previously thought and a made very significant contribution to nitrogen supply and the nitrogen cycle
  • 1990s Showed that land use plays an important role in mediating the sink strength of soils for the potent greenhouse gas methane following the order woodland > grassland > arable. We established that methane uptake was microbially mediated and the most likely causes of the inhibitory effects on arable farmland included the direct inhibition, or at least suppression, of methane-oxidising organisms by ammonium ions (as a consequence of long-term ammonium-based nitrogen fertilisers) and the requirement of methanotrophs for a stable soil architecture, which is incompatible with the disturbance caused by regular arable cultivation
  • 1995 Contrary to received opinion at the time, I was part of research, led by Phil Brookes and PhD student Goswin Heckrath, which used the Broadbalk Long-term Experiment to show that significant amounts of phosphate could be leached from farmland. Concentrations of phosphate in drainage water were small until a critical level of available phosphorus in soil was exceeded. Losses then increased rapidly and at concentrations that greatly exceeded those at which eutrophication is triggered
  • 2003 Awarded the Royal Agricultural Society of England's Research Medal for my research on nitrate leaching from arable and horticultural land and other research into diffuse pollution from agriculture
  • 2007 As a lead author of the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, I was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize Certificate by the IPCC. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Al Gore and the IPCC 'for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change

How has BBSRC supported you throughout your career?

I have worked at Rothamsted Research, which is strategically funded by BBSRC, for my entire career. This would probably be viewed as a poor career choice today when several changes of jobs, including time overseas, is almost seen as compulsory.

Currently, the five-year, BBSRC-funded ISPG 'Delivering Sustainable Systems' facilitates the very important strategic approach that I, as a member of an institute, can take to research. That was preceded by a cross-Institute programme on 'Sustainable Soil Function', which provided critical support for the soil science funded by BBSRC. I am also very pleased that BBSRC recognises the importance of key facilities such as our Long-term Experiments, sample archive and e-RA database and funds them as a National Capability.

I have also received responsive mode grants and occasional grants in support of overseas travel from BBSRC, particularly for my research into climate change and greenhouse gases. And I have participated in many BBSRC-supported training courses in management, media skills, and writing, which have supported me in the development of my career and helped me to contribute to TV and radio programmes and the vital translational work with farmers, advisors and the public.

Tags: 20 years of bioscience environmental change farming pioneers Rothamsted Research feature