News / Science & Technology

    Tiny Microbes Are Next Big Thing in Farming

    Tiny Microbes Are Next Big Thing in Farmingi
    X
    April 04, 2014 1:31 PM
    The next big thing in agriculture is small. Microscopic, in fact. The seed and chemical giant Monsanto has signed a $300 million deal with Novozymes, a company that specializes in growing bacteria and fungi. It’s just one indication of the promise that scientists see for these tiny microbes to help farmers produce more with less. VOA’s Steve Baragona takes a look.
    “That insect’s dead.”

    Shawn Semones holds up a little plastic cup in which a little worm-like insect lies in repose, sprouting a fine white coat of mold.

    That fungus not only killed the insect pest, the white coat is producing spores that will blow in the wind to infect another insect.

    “This is a naturally occurring microorganism,” said Semones, head of agricultural research and development at the biosciences company Novozymes. “We’ve just come up with a way to produce it at an industrial scale, stabilize it and offer it to farmers as a biopesticide.”

    Next big thing

    Welcome to the next big thing in agriculture. It’s small. Microscopic, in fact.

    Novozymes recently signed a $300 million deal with the seed and chemical giant Monsanto to help bring new discoveries in the microbial world to farmers’ fields.
    Scientists are looking at how to use the diversity of microbes found in soil to help farmers produce more with less. (Photo by Elizabeth Shank)Scientists are looking at how to use the diversity of microbes found in soil to help farmers produce more with less. (Photo by Elizabeth Shank)


    It's just one indication of the promise that scientists see for these tiny microbes to help farmers produce more with less.

    The world population is expected to climb to nine billion by 2050, from seven billion today. And people are getting richer and demanding better food. So agriculture will need to produce about 70 percent more by mid-century, experts say, and do so in a changing climate, with threats to land, water and fertilizer resources, and while causing less harm to the environment.

    Answers in soil

    Researchers are finding answers to that challenge in soil beneath our feet.

    “Soil is teeming with life,” said University of North Carolina biology professor Jeff Dangl. A gram of soil contains anywhere from a hundred million to a billion microbes.

    That megalopolis of microbes is engaged in a thriving barter economy with the plants that share the soil.

    Plants make sugar through photosynthesis.

    “Much of that sugar is actually pumped down through the roots,” Dangl said, where it is turned into sugar-based microbe food and secreted into the soil. “They do that specifically to recruit microbes to help the plants grow better.”

    Some of those recruits turn chemicals in the air and soil into food the plants can eat. Novozymes already sells one type of fungus that helps plants get phosphorous from the soil.

    Other microbes act as bodyguards, producing antibiotics and other chemicals to fight off the bad germs.

    Bacterial and fungal friends

    “What’s really blown this field open,” Dangl added, “is the realization that, if we want to understand the way the plant organism functions, we have to consider its bacterial and fungal friends part of that organism.”

    The same realization is taking place in human medicine. Scientists are discovering that the microbes living on and in every one of us -- whose cells outnumber our own 10 to 1 -- are much more important than we have given them credit for. More than merely helping us digest our food, a growing body of research shows this biome is involved in everything from allergies to obesity to regulating moods.

    These discoveries owe a lot to advances in DNA sequencing. The technology first used to decode humans’ entire genetic blueprint has come so far in just the last few years, Dangl says, that “we now can, for $50, sequence the complete genome of essentially any bacteria on earth.”

    “Our technical abilities have gone through the roof in terms of understanding what’s in a gram of soil,” said Purdue University soil scientist Ron Turco.

    For example, soil from one particular field may prevent peas from getting a wilting disease.

    “There’s something in that soil," Turco said. "You take your genetic tools and you look for things that are different, and you can bring out the organisms that are doing that job.”

    But it’s not easy, he added. “You can show an effect in soil but sometimes you can never really isolate that bacteria out. It’s a whole art form to recover a microorganism from soil. And that’s not insignificant.”

    And a microbe that works in one place will not necessarily work in another.

    Researchers in the northwestern United States have found bacteria that fight a fungus which rots the roots of wheat plants. But, UNC’s Jeff Dangl notes, they don’t seem to work anywhere else.

    Dangl co-founded a North Carolina startup company, AgBiome, which is working on this problem.

    One of their most promising leads is a bacterium that fights off a fungal disease common in greenhouses. In the lab, it produces “the kind of control you would usually achieve with a commercial fungicide chemical,” said AgBiome’s chief science officer, Dan Tomso.

    Dangl hopes to develop a seed treatment that combines several disease-fighting and fertilizing microbes into a probiotic mix that works in a variety of soils.

    Purdue’s Ron Turco sees the new interest in the soil as good news for an under-studied field.

    “Soils are our major resource in this country that allows us to get away with all the things we’re able to get away with in terms of food production,” he said. “We’ve got tremendous soil resources that we don’t completely understand.”

    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

    You May Like

    US, Somalia Launch New Chapter in Relations

    US sends first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years; diplomatic presence and forces pulled out in 1993, after 18 US soldiers were killed when militiamen shot down military helicopter

    Brexit Vote Ripples Across South Asia

    Experts say exit is likely to have far-reaching economic, political and social implications for a region with deep historic ties to Britain

    Russian Military Tests Readiness With Snap Inspections

    Some observers see surprise drill as tit-for-tat response to NATO’s recent multinational military exercises in Baltic region

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Maeda Atsukoh from: AKB, TKO
    April 04, 2014 8:41 PM
    Soil is basic for agriculture. We already know about it very well in Japan and that's the cause of we have a lot of know-hows to produce delicious and good vegetables and crops.

    But we don't have enough place for effective mass production of them and enough scientists for agriculture.

    I hope American scientists and Japanese farmers could have good collaboration projects to save world food crisis.

    by: Untrusting from: Milwaukee
    April 04, 2014 3:14 PM
    The fact that this partnership is with Monsanto the kings of evil food production means that nothing but harm can come of it.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Testing Bamboo as Building Materiali
    X
    June 27, 2016 9:06 PM
    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapides’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora