Aarhus University

Research field


Research leader

Diego Abalos

Tenure Track Researcher

Project title

Redefining a plant ideotype to reduce nitrogen pollution

What is your project about?

Modern crop cultivars have been developed to maximize yield in response to high inputs of nitrogen fertilizer, which has been a formidable success to meet the food demand of a growing world population. However, this practice is not efficient: a large fraction of the applied nitrogen is lost from the agroecosystem, causing global warming, ozone-depletion, and eutrophication. A new generation of crops with roots adapted to reduced fertilizer inputs is necessary to develop a more sustainable agriculture. Using barley as model system, this project will combine experiments and modelling to identify root traits that increase plant nitrogen uptake and reduce nitrogen loss in a context of low fertilizer inputs. We will use domesticated, wild and mutant varieties to establish a gradient of within-species root trait variation, allowing a mechanistic understanding of the links between plant traits, soil microbial communities and nitrogen dynamics. These ecological interactions will be incorporated into crop models to improve their predictive capacity. Ultimately, our results will point the way towards a climate-smart (re)domestication of current plant cultivars

How did you become interested in your particular field of research?

Agriculture is at the forefront of some of the world’s most pressing challenges such as climate change (both adaptation and mitigation), food security and biodiversity loss (and associated loss of ecosystem services). I find this multifaceted problem fascinating, and for many years, I have been deeply interested in finding ways to design biodiverse farming systems that retain nutrients more efficiently and that remain productive and resilient in the face of global change

What are the scientific challenges and perspectives in your project?

A crucial challenge of developing an improved crop cultivar is to understand the interactions among crop genetics, environment, and management. These interactions may define the specific conditions under which specific crop traits lead to the desired results. My project will tackle this challenge by using process-based crop models, combined with physiological, genetic, and ecological knowledge to interactively inform crop modelling trials and cultivar selection protocols.

What is your estimate of the impact, which your project may have to society in the long term?

This project will identify root traits and genetic targets to re-domesticate crop cultivars. Accordingly, it will re-design the foundations of our cropping systems by following a deep and genuine multi-disciplinary approach (soil and environmental science, process-based modelling, plant genetics, microbiology). Our results can support implementation through both policy (in relation to climate change and nitrogen pollution) and farm business (seed companies) driven activities. From a policy perspective, the project provides a tool to achieve simultaneously the objectives of food security and combating climate change. It will also aid in meeting national as well as EU greenhouse gas mitigation targets.

Which impact do you expect the Sapere Aude programme will have on your career as a researcher?

The Sapere Aude will allow me to achieve international scholarly excellence, promote Denmark’s leadership in environmental and agricultural science, open novel research avenues to be explored over the coming years, and expand my research group with talented post-docs and PhD students. The prestige of the Sapere Aude will also give me the opportunity to initiate stimulating collaborations with the best researchers, and to attract future research funding.

Background and personal life

I am originally from Madrid (Spain), but during the last years my wife Laura and I have lived in England, Canada, the Netherlands, and Denmark. When I am not working, I enjoy working out, reading, binge-watching series, having beers with friends, and supporting Atletico de Madrid.

City of your current residence


High school

Instituto de Las Rozas, Madrid (Spain)