Whether in your allotment or in horticulture, fossil peat is frequently used to improve soil quality – yet the harvesting of this substrate, which occurs in moors, is destroying their ecosystem and contributing to global warming through increased carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Professor Dr. Ralf Reski and Dr. Eva Decker from the Faculty of Biology at the University of Freiburg, Germany, want to develop peat moss as a sustainable and renewable alternative as part of the “MOOSzucht” (moss cultivation) project. The University of Greifswald is co-ordinating the joint project, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and an enterprise from Lower Saxony are also involved. The German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) is funding the project with approx. 1.1 million Euros for the next 3 years.
Moorlands play an important role in climate regulation: they increase biodiversity and store large amounts of water and the greenhouse gas CO2. Moors have their main component to thank for their water storage abilities, namely the decomposed peat mosses, which are used for horticulture. Worldwide 30 million cubic meters of fossil peat are used yearly, nine million alone in Germany. Peat harvesting and drainage by agriculture mean only about 5% of moorland areas are still intact in these parts.
In previous projects the Greifswald ecobiologists have already shown that peat-exhausted moors make an ideal basis on which newly planted mosses from the Sphagnum family can grow. These renewable peat mosses can be harvested after a few years and used as peat substitute in horticulture. This usage of wet moorlands is called paludiculture. It reduces CO2 emission, preserves agricultural areas, increases biodiversity, secures jobs in rural areas and strengthens the regional economy. “Until now a shortage of “moss seeding material” prevented the commercial use of paludiculture. Moreover their efficiency must be increased by at least 30%”, says Reski.
The team of biologists from Freiburg has already propagated a pure version of Sphagnum in bioreactors as part of the EU-funded project “MossClone”.
“This technology will be improved upon in the “MOOSzucht” project together with our colleagues from the KIT in Karlsruhe”, explained Reski. “Furthermore we will be applying our knowledge of the genetic composition of Physcomitrella and Sphagnum mosses, in order to obtain fast-growing peat mosses via smart breeding.”
The BMEL reviewers assessed the combination of plant biotechnology, bioprocess engineering, ecobiology, horticulture and agriculture as a particularly innovative and successful example for creatively combining ecology with economics.
The biologists from Freiburg are specialists in moss research and contributed significantly in developing mosses as model organisms for biology and biotechnology on a world-wide scale. Ralf Reski heads the Chair of Plant Biotechnology at the University of Freiburg. The biologist is a member of the BIOSS Excellence Cluster (Centre for Biological Signalling Studies) and was Senior Fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) and its French counterpart USIAS, the University of Strasbourg Institute for Advanced Study, France.