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.”

You May Like

Nigeria Incumbent in Tight Spot as Poll Nears

Muhammadu Buhari is running a strong challenge to Goodluck Jonathan, amid a faltering economy and Boko Haram security worries More

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo tells VOA that despite her fame, life is still a struggle as she waits for government's promise of support to arrive More

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

At least seven different indigenous groups in Ratanakiri depend mainly on forest products for their survival, say they face loss of their land, traditional way of life More

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.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More