Congratulations to Dr Peter Orrell

Peter Orrell Converge Challenge 2018

Congratulations to Peter Orrell, a member of the James Hutton Limited team who at the start of this year, completed his PhD entitled, “Linking above and below-ground interactions in agro-eco systems: An ecological network approach”.  Peter was also a runner-up in the 2018 Converge Challenge, a high-profile pan-Scotland company creation competition and entrepreneurship development programme for staff, students, and recent graduates of Scottish universities and research institutes, aimed at creating a new generation of entrepreneurs in Scotland. At the end of May, Peter was the winner of the Converge Challenge’s ‘Ready Steady Pitch’ award, having just 60 seconds to present his innovative idea to a panel of experts and esteemed industry professionals. 

The newly titled, Dr Orrell, started his working life in graphic design, however the roles that he had at the time offered little engagement or satisfaction, so in making a change of career, he started thinking about what he always genuinely enjoyed reading and learning about in his spare time. Peter realised that growing plants and learning about ecology was something he never got tired of which led him to sign up to an undergraduate degree in Environmental Science from Manchester Metropolitan University.  The degree covered a huge range of different topics from sustainability to earth systems processes. He particularly enjoyed botany and ecology, which were chosen as a specialism and as a base topic for a final year project studying mycorrhizal fungi. Peter says, “I found mycorrhizae really fascinating and wanted to continue researching this field”.

Rather fortuitously, a six-month post as part of a James Hutton Institute field experiment looking at how crops can lose dependency on mycorrhizal fungi and survive, led very nicely into a PhD project within a related subject area.  “Participating in the initial experiment allowed me to iron out any problems I might have encountered in my own research and essentially, I hit the ground running.  A PhD at the James Hutton Institute was perfect. I was already familiar with the Institute and the work here, of course it has an excellent reputation, and it’s an Institute which specialises in crop science which means I’ve had the best possible supervision and support from the wider James Hutton community too.” Peter said.  Peter’s supervisors at the James Hutton Institute were Dr Alison Bennet (primary) and Dr Maria Nijnik, as well as Dr Darren Evans from Newcastle University.  The PhD was joint funded by the two organisations.

Peter’s PhD focussed on connecting how below-ground organisms can indirectly influence above-ground organisms, through their interactions with crop plants, focusing on the below ground activity of mycorrhizal fungi.  Mycorrhizal fungi colonise a plants primary root system, creating a secondary system which reaches further and thus provides better access to water and nutrients. 92% of plant families, and 80% of plant species form this mutualistic relationship, and plants can potentially grow bigger and better as a result.  Peter’s PhD research investigated the impact of mycorrhizae on plant reproductive systems, particularly reproductive traits such as pollen and nectar, and in turn the impact on pollinators.

John Swinney & Peter Orrell
Peter discusses his MycoNourish product with Deputy First Minister John Swinney at an RSE event

The study consisted of two experiments using strawberries as the model crop: one in a controlled glasshouse environment using bumblebees (which are utilised in commercial strawberry production), and an open field study, which examined impacts on the wild pollinator community. Strawberries were used because efficient pollination is required to produce the best fruit and has implications for improving crops in the local area. Invergowrie, near Dundee, one of two James Hutton Institute sites, is part of a renowned soft fruit growing area. Demand for strawberries in the UK is growing rapidly, and any increases or improvements in plant health and yield which contribute to fruit production are vitally important for producers.

Peter studied how different mycorrhizal communities change the behaviour of visiting pollinators, including how often they visit, how long they spend on a flower, and how they behave when pollinating a flower.  Influences on the fruit yield of the strawberry plants presented the potential for the development of a commercial product.

The commercial angle gave Peter the opportunity to approach The Genomia Fund, which funded a year of research and development, and following that, he began an Enterprise Fellowship with the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), funded by Scottish Enterprise.

Working through the RSE Fellowship is giving Peter the commercial awareness and the knowledge needed to start a spin-out company from the James Hutton Institute. Funding from Genomia allowed Peter to spend a year on research and development for a commercial inocula product, which when added to substrate will not only improve crop yields, but unlike similar products, will be tailored to suit specific crops.  Peter explains, “Different crops have different needs, so one size fits all is not an ideal solution. I am focusing on strawberries for the time being, and then plan to move into to other crops. I am speaking with growers, propagators, and co-ops in the UK about how this can help them and in the future, I do see a product that has global appeal for multiple crops.”

Peter’s spin-out will be based initially at the James Hutton Institute with the expectation of growing into larger premises in due course, “I’m in the process of building a team at the moment, which will be a key resource in commercialising the product.  This is the perfect follow on from the PhD, as it takes fundamental research and translates it to a solid, commercially viable product. There is a lot more research I’d like to do in the future, but my focus will be to get the business established. I have always been interested in the practical application of science, but I never imagined I would be doing something like this, which has impacts ranging from improved food security, boosting the local economy, and reducing reliance on imports.”

Peter can be contacted via the link below.