Everything that plants absorb eventually ends up on your plate and so in your body, including pesticides. Pesticides are bad for your health and the environment, which is why the EU wants to drastically reduce their use.
Professor Marnix Medema of Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is the coordinator of a research consortium that will be spending the next few years looking for an alternative to chemical pesticides in the agriculture sector. They believe that antimicrobial peptides may offer a solution.
The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) has granted the consortium a total of €5.5 million over the next five years as part of an NWO Kennis- en Innovatieconvenant-program to investigate the role of the microbiome in the nutrient cycle called Microbiome: Healthy from soil to gut and back.
No detriment to people and the environment
"Chemical pesticides are a major problem that needs to be solved fast," says Medema. "These products are bad for biodiversity, but could also have negative effects on plant microbiomes (beneficial bacteria) and on human health. We want to help solve this problem."
A solution may come from the bacteria that occur naturally on plants and produce antimicrobial peptides. Peptides are basically small proteins, and some of them can kill pathogens without detriment to the human body or biodiversity.
Medema and his colleagues hope to discover readily biodegradable peptides that will target bacteria and fungi and leave the rest of the microbiome of a plant alone. Moreover, if the bacteria that make these peptides can be deployed as biological crop protection agents, this will ensure that they only produce them when and where they are needed.
"We currently know very little about which bacteria produce these peptides in a plant," says Medema. "But new technology has now become available that will allow us to identify peptides on a large scale and test their biological activities."