Team:Imperial College London/Project/Background



Soil erosion and desertification are world-wide problems. They lead to loss of arable land, economic hardship and environmental degradation. Our project focuses on tackling these serious problems by engineering bacteria to enhance plant root growth. We are planning to implement our bacteria into a seed coat to aid re-vegetation of land at risk of erosion. Trees and plants help hold down the soil and prevent soil erosion which leads to desertification

Desertification is the degradation of drylands which include arid, semi-arid and sub-humid areas. Drylands make up roughly 40 percent of the Earth’s land and are home to some two billion people, most of which live in developing countries. Dryland soil sustains a fragile ecosystem adapted to infrequent precipitation and dramatic temperature changes. Over-exploitation of dryland for cultivation and feedstock purposes renders the soil unproductive, forcing migration of communities in search of fertile land, leaving the unproductive land bare and vulnerable to erosive forces. A lack of food supply in many developing countries forces constant cultivation of land for short-term gain as well as deforestation to provide arable land.

Case studies

Mouse over the map to read about the impact of desertification in different areas.

Downstream Effects

Soil erosion affects the climate and biodiversity and often leads to irreversible desertification (Figure 1). Roots increase the stability of soil and prevent erosion[7]. In addition, trees provide cover and protect nearby fauna and flora. In areas prone to soil erosion, this is especially important as rainfall tends to be rare but when it does occur, it is often very intense and easily leads to topsoil being washed away.

Roots are also important carbon sinks. Increasing root biomass is therefore very likely to improve the carbon budget of the plants we are seeding (Dr Alexandru Milcu, oral communication).

Figure 1: The interplay between desertification, climate change, and biodiversity loss. Image taken from the Millenium Ecosystems Assessment - Desertification synthesis[1].

References and Bibliography:

[1] Millenium ecosystem assessment (2005) Ecosystems and human well-being: Desertification synthesis. World Resources Institute, Washington, DC. (Online) Available from:

[2] Pickup G (1998) Desertification and climate change - the Australian perspective. Climate Research 11: 51-63.

[3] UNCCD (2011) Desertification: a visual synthesis. (Online) Available from: (Accessed on 12 August, 2011).

[4] Science Daily (2007). Severity of desertification on world stage. (Online) Available from:

[5] The Encyclopedia of the Earth (2010). Desertification. (Online) Available from:

[6] Food and agriculture organisation of the United Nations. Desertification. (Online) Available from:

[7] Gyssels G and Poesen J (2003) The importance of plant root characteristics in controlling concentrated flow erosion rates. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 28: 371-384.

M1: Phyto-Route