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The key to fighting climate change is under our feet

Laurent Philippot has been vice director of the Joint Research Unit for Agroecology, located in Dijon, since 2014. He is in charge of the EcolDur (1) group, which studies agricultural ecosystems with the aim of designing more sustainable production systems. His own research focuses on the bacteria that transform nitrogen fertilizers; he wants to discover how to limit the loss of nutrients and the production of greenhouse gases. 

Laurent Philippot. © INRA
By Emmanuelle Manck, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 06/30/2015
Published on 06/23/2015

After finishing his degree in organismal biology, Philippot wanted to pursue his passion for botany, or to continue “to grow plants”, as he puts it. He was therefore drawn to the field of microbial ecology: plant growth is determined by interactions that take place between plants and microorganisms. He did his PhD in the Microbial Ecology group at Université Claude Bernard in Lyon, studying the nitrogen cycle. He continued to pursue the topic after finishing his degree in 1997. It is an important field of research because plants require nitrogen to grow, and its availability is influenced by different groups of microorganisms. For example, nitrifying bacteria, found in the soil, transform ammonium into nitrate. In contrast, denitrifying bacteria transform nitrates into nitrogen gas, which is released into the atmosphere. Philippot explains, “Denitrifying bacteria lead to costly fertilizer losses for farmers. They also produce nitrous oxide, which is a major greenhouse gas that destroys the ozone layer.”

Focusing on soil microorganisms

After completing his PhD, Philippot joined the Soil Microbiology group  at the INRA center in Dijon. He says that he was “welcomed and in good company.” In 2001, he spent a year at the Georgia Institute of Technology (GATECH) in Atlanta, Georgia (USA), to “better understand how research is done elsewhere.” He comments, “When I came back to France, I worked with Fabrice Martin, a young researcher, to promote more crossover among research groups, techniques, and tools. Our efforts were supported by our group. We were granted personnel and funds, which allowed our research to move forward.” He was therefore given ample support to carry out his work on the ecology of the microorganisms responsible for “hijacking” soil nitrogen. 

Bacterial sinks for greenhouse gases

Moving towards sustainable agricultural practices

In 2003, Philippot became head of the INRA research group that focuses on using functional microbial ecology to manage agricultural inputs. The goal of the group is to understand the biological mechanisms by which nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides in farmed soils are transformed, so as to limit their environmental impact. In 2012, the group merged with others to form the larger Joint Research Unit for Agroecology. The unit’s research focuses on developing sustainable agricultural practices: methods that allow production quality and quantity to meet society’s nutritional needs while remaining environmentally friendly. Philippot comments, “In the early 2000s, our team came up with new ways to characterize and quantify bacteria involved in the nitrogen cycle. In 2013, we discovered a group of bacteria that can act as a sink for nitrous oxide, transforming it into elemental nitrogen.” Recently, Philippot took on a PhD student using funding from the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) and a European research grant (a Marie Curie fellowship). The student will identify the agricultural practices that can boost these bacteria’s activity, with a view to limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

(1) Community Ecology and Sustainable Agricultural Systems

Mini-CV

  • 47 years old and married
  • Master’s degree in Organismal and Population Biology from Université Claude Bernard in Lyon in 1992
  • PhD in Microbial Ecology in 1997
  • Year-long sabbatical in Dr. Zhulin’s laboratory in the School of Biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, Georgia, USA) in 2001
  • Sabbatical in Dr. Hallin’s laboratory in the Swedish University of Agricultural Science (Uppsala, Sweden) in 2008-2009
  • Senior editor for the ISME Journal (a multidisciplinary journal specializing in microbial ecology)
  • Author of more than 110 scientific articles and 130 short communications
  • Vice director of the Joint Research Unit for Agroecology since 2014