Science - June 6, 2019

First GroundBreaker Prize goes to WUR

Roelof Kleis

Soil biologist Gerlinde de Deyn is the first person to win the new GroundBreaker Prize. She gets quarter of a million dollars.

© Gea Hogeveen

The prize has been awarded this first time to two scientists who are doing ground-breaking research on soils. In addition to De Deyn, soil ecologist Keith Paustian (University of Colorado) was rewarded for his research achievements. The Wageningen professor got the GroundBreaker Prize for her work on the interaction between plants and the soil.

Remote sensing
‘I study how plants and soils interact physically, chemically and biologically, and how you can use that knowledge to make both healthie', says De Deyn. 'My aim is to be able to measure determining characteristics of combinations of plants from the air. To do that, I work with Lammert Kooistra in the Remote Sensing group at ESG.’ De Deyn, who is originally from Belgium, came to Wageningen in 2011. Three years ago, she was appointed professor holding a personal chair in Soil Ecology.

My aim is to be able to measure determining characteristics of combinations of plants from the air
Gerlinde De Deyn

De Deyn investigates how pairs of plants growing in rows next to one another reinforce one another in their use of nutrients in the soil. ‘I want to understand how that works and what you can do to steer it. The aim is to generate easily applicable knowledge for practitioners.’ De Deyn thinks it was the combination of agriculture and ecology in particular that appealed to the jury. The GroundBreaker Prize is an initiative of the New York investment platform FoodShot Global.

The participants invest in innovations that can make the food system more sustainable. The group of venture capitalists includes the Rabobank. The prize will be handed over next Tuesday in New York. Gerlinde de Deyn wants to use the money to make a start on a study on how to improve nutritional drinks based on sorghum in Zambia. The sorghum study, which is one of University Fund Wageningen’s projects, involves collaboration between several science groups.