The role of fungi in helping to prevent landslips is being investigated in research led at the University of Strathclyde.
The study will explore the use of fungi and their properties in strengthening soil and reducing infiltration of rainwater, a common cause of landslips.
The project’s lead researcher, Dr Grainne El Mountassir, has received a Future Leaders Fellowship, worth £1.3 million over four years, from UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) for the project.
The research will use fungi and soil collected from the UK and Italy to understand how the growth of different fungal species can be controlled to improve the engineering performance of natural soils.
Cardiff University, the University of Naples Federico II and engineering company BAM Ritchies are also partners in the study.
Dr El Mountassir, a Senior Lecturer in Strathclyde’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said: “Fungi are incredibly resilient and adaptable. Fungi on the floors of North American forests are believed to be some of the oldest living organisms on Earth, with individual organisms dated as around 1500 years old.
“We know a lot about the uses of fungi in making food and drink, such as bread and beer, but we know relatively little about them in other contexts. However, we also know that, as fungi grow through soils to forage for nutrients, they build a 3D network of biomass that acts both to bind soil particles together but also releases products that can modify how water moves through soil.
“Some slopes regularly fail after periods of heavy rainfall when water infiltrates into the soil and reduces its strength. The idea of this study is to use fungi to create a biological geotextile at the soil surface, which could reduce the ability of water to penetrate into the soil, and therefore improve the stability of slopes.
“Our research aims to understand the factors controlling fungal growth in natural soils, such that we can engineer it to grow over a large area. We will be examining different types of soil, including pyroclastic soil which originated from eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, and looking at how fungal growth changes soil cohesion.
“The research is part of a transition towards a more sustainable, low-carbon civil engineering sector and as a growth-based system, it would reduce the amount of materials needing to be transported to site.”
UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “As home to the innovators who demonstrated the first working television and telephone, Scotland has a unique history in technological innovation. Backed with £13m of UK Government funding, these pioneering projects in Scotland, whether that’s making smart devices sustainable or supporting the fishing industry to combat climate change, will continue that proud tradition.
“We are putting science and innovation at the heart of our efforts to build back better from COVID-19, empowering our scientific leaders of tomorrow to drive forward game-changing research and helping to secure the UK’s status as a global science superpower.”
UKRI Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said: “I am delighted that UKRI is able to support the next generation of research and innovation leaders through our Future Leaders Fellowship programme.
“The new Fellows announced today will have the support and freedom they need to pursue their research and innovation ideas, delivering new knowledge and understanding and tackling some of the greatest challenges of our time.”
The University of Strathclyde has been ranked joint 32nd in the world, first in Scotland and seventh in the UK in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2021, which measure how more than 1,100 global higher education institutions are working towards the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.