Irish teens win Google Science Fair using bacteria to grow food:

Seeds treated with bacteria sprout 50 percent faster

A trio of Irish high-schoolers nabbed the top prize in this year's Google Science Fair with a project that speeds up crop growth by tapping into the naturally cozy relationship between soil microbes and plants. After 11 months of experiments, the three 16-year-olds—Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey, and Sophie Healy-Thow—found that seeds treated with bacteria sprouted 50 percent faster than untreated seeds did. At harvest, the microbes increased barley and oats yields by as much as 70 percent. (See "Why Tiny Microbes Mean Big Things for Farming.")

The improved sprouting speed is instrumental to farmers in Ireland, where seeds can rot in the damp soil before sprouting, Hickey said. The trio hails from Cork County, the agricultural southern tip of the country.

But the project really kicked off in Hickey's own backyard. "Émer and her mom were gardening, and she noticed nodules on one of their pea plants," Healy-Thow said. "She brought that into school, and our teacher told us it was bacteria."

The bacteria act as an early warning system for the plants, kickstarting growth. When the microbes sense the presence of compounds called flavonoids on plants, they begin to build nodules, swellings on roots that house bacteria able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into forms the plant can consume. The presence of the nodules then tells the plants it's time to grow faster.

Click here to learn more at National Geographic

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