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The potential of naturally evolved microbes in agriculture

A lot of agricultural research has gone into plant breeding and genetics as a means of solving issues with disease and climate change. But new findings on the microbiome are beginning to show that the microbial community that forms associations with plants may have as much or more impact on how well a plant grows as the plant’s genetics.

by Ananda Lynn Fitzsimmons

In the 1990s, when microbiologist Rusty Rodriguez was working in Yellowstone National Park, he noticed plants thriving in the heat-baked soil around geothermal vents. He and his wife collected samples of the plants and took them back to a laboratory to study the microbiology around these plants. They discovered a particular fungus within the tissues of all the different plant species that were able to thrive in soil at 150 Fahrenheit . When Rodriquez inoculated tomato plants with these microscopic fungi from the hot soil, the tomato plants were able to survive in temperatures up to 148 Fahrenheit. But when he inoculated tomato plants with similar strains of the fungus isolated from locations without heat stress, they did not confer resistance to extreme heat. The strains of fungus that had adapted to the hot soil had evolved to develop heat tolerance and conferred that to the plants with which they associate.

Dr Ian Sanders of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland isolates different strains of mycorrhizal fungi. Sanders is exploring sexual reproduction of the fungi, crossing different strains of mycorrhiza isolated from different locations. Mycorrhizal fungi works in symbiosis with many types of plant roots, helping plants resist stress and take up nutrients from the soil. In greenhouse trials on rice inoculated with new super strains of mycorrhiza, he found that rice plants produced up to 5 times more rice. Sanders and his research partners went on to field test their strains with cassava plants in Colombia, and found that their strains produced 3 to 4 times greater yields in the cassava plants.

Inocucor scientists also look for powerful microbial strains that produce by-products to improve plant health. Whether it is a cocktail of super strains and their by-products to combat disease or to improve fertility, these new microbial tools will help to create a new sustainable agriculture around the world.

Work like this has been enabled by advances in molecular biology. Scientists can extract a whole community of microbes, extract all the DNA, and then look at the sequences to understand the numbers and types of players in the microbial community. This enables us to see trends in the microbial communities of soil and plants. Microbes evolve in response to their environment, and different strains of the same microbe may have specific traits that have allowed it to adapt to the conditions in which they live. These examples of pioneering work show the potential of working with naturally evolved microbes to optimize plant growth, help plants adapt to climate stress and reduce fertilizer inputs.

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