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Experimental evolution of microbial eco-systems in traditional Zambian fermented products

Final Report Summary - ZAMFERM (Experimental evolution of microbial eco-systems in traditional Zambian fermented products.)

Ever since Darwin, the process of evolution has intensively been studied, initially through comparative methods reconstructing past evolution and more recently through manipulative long-term laboratory experiments. The goal of this research project is to test evolutionary hypotheses on ecosystem evolution using traditional fermented products as natural model systems that can be experimentally manipulated. This project greatly advances beyond the current state of the art by expanding experimental evolution into the complexity of entire eco-systems outside the laboratory using traditional fermented products.

In this project, Dr Schoustra has developed traditional fermented products from Zambia as experimental model systems to address these fundamental questions. After field interviews in the first year with local people on their processing practice, he used the established contacts to set up field experiments that were performed in the second year. During these experiments microbial communities in the products were extensively sampled at various stages of the production process. In the third year, these samples have been analysed in the laboratory for their microbial composition. The field work was carried out in close collaboration with local farmers, which led to a high level of community engagement. Indeed, the connection with local communities in Zambia resulted of a visit of a local farmer from Zambia to the Netherlands in the third year.

Further, Dr Schoustra secured follow-up funding for the continuation of the project after completion of the IOF Fellowship and started to implement a continuation of the project in Wageningen with close collaboration with Zambia during the third year. The funding is from the Netherlands government and supports four PhD projects of which Dr Schoustra is the main supervisor. Both Zambian and Dutch PhD candidates will carry out the research in a collaboration of Wageningen University and The University of Zambia and four non-academic partners. In this way, the IOF Fellowship has had a highly significant impact on Dr Schoustra’s future research career since it allows him to establish this research as a long term research program addressing fundamental questions in community ecology and evolution using traditional fermented foods from Zambia as a model system. This has further led to the establishment of long term mutually beneficial collaborations between Wageningen and Zambia and a continuation of various important outreach activities that will continue beyond the Marie Curie IOF fellowship.