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'Soil is the basis of our lives' - Martijn Bezemer nominated for Huibregtsen Prize 2023

Directing soil life and thereby influencing what grows above ground: that is the expertise of Leiden biologist Martijn Bezemer and his colleague Wim van der Putten (NIOO-KNAW). Their research on soil transplants has been nominated for the Huibregtsen Prize 2023. This prize goes to innovative research with added value for society.

'Soil is the basis of our lives,' says Bezemer. 'That applies to agriculture but also to nature. If you want to restore nature, you need the right soil.' And that means something different for each plant. 'Because every plant has its own soil life,' says Bezemer. 'Specific fungi, bacteria and other organisms that ensure the plant thrives.'

Soil transplants: speeding up and directing nature's recovery

This knowledge led to the ingenious idea of transplanting pieces of land, with soil life and all, for accelerated restoration of vulnerable nature. Bezemer: 'In nature reserve the Reijerscamp on the Veluwe, Natuurmonumenten is restoring nature on former agricultural land. We collected soil from heathland and grassland and spread these two types of soil in the area. In places where heathland soil was spread, we saw heathland vegetation develop within a year, while in places with grassland soil a diverse grassland developed. Spreading only seeds had no effect. So it turns out that by "transplanting" a little bit of soil, you can restore nature faster. And by consciously choosing which ecosystem you collect soil from, you can direct nature.'

'Soil transplants globally recommended by UN'

The jury report attributes great impact to Bezemer and Van der Putten's research. 'The fact that soil transplants are carried out worldwide today to restore vulnerable nature is in part thanks to Wim van der Putten and Martijn Bezemer.' According to the jury report, the impact of their work in Rijerscamp is also evidenced by the fact that the United Nations now recommends soil transplantation for restoring ecosystems worldwide. 'Van der Putten and Bezemer contribute to nature restoration in a constructive ánd friendly way at a time when the debate around nature and climate is actually polarised.'

'We have to be economical with the soil'

Bezemer responds modestly to the nomination. 'It is of course a great honour to be nominated, but the fact that the attention for soil has increased is certainly not only due to us. We have been able to do our bit. I think it's great to see that the broader public is also paying more and more attention to soil. That's important: we need to be very careful with it, and are starting to understand better and better how we can restore, or even direct, the soil.'

At the Evening of Science & Society, 9 October 2023 in the Pieterskerk in Leiden, jury president Marileen Dogterom (president KNAW) will announce who wins this year's Huibregtsen Prize.

The Huibregtsen Prize

The Huibregtsen Prize was established in 2005 by the board of the De Avond van Wetenschap & Maatschappij Foundation. The prize is intended for a recent research project that combines scientific quality and innovation with special added value for society. The prize is named after the founder of the Evening of Science & Society, Mickey Huibregtsen, who passed away on 20 May 2022.

From 24 entries for the Huibregtsen Prize 2023, the jury has nominated six scientific research projects.

The prize consists of a sculpture, 'De Denker', by visual artist Wil van der Laan, a cash prize of €25,000, earmarked for research activities, and a workshop, offered by the Lorentz Center in Leiden.

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