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

Key Al-Shabab Commander Captured

Zakariye Ismail Hersi was captured in a raid Saturday morning in the town of El Wak near the border with Kenya More

Relations Between Pakistan, Afghanistan Key to Fighting Taliban

A Pakistani official tells VOA that anti-terrorism campaign has resulted in improved counter-terrorism cooperation with Afghanistan More

160,000 Displaced by Flooding in Malaysia

Prime Minister Najib Razak visits hard-hit Kelantan state, announces nearly $145M in additional relief for victims 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.
Estimates Rising of Foreign Fighters in Iraq, Syriai
X
Jeff Seldin
December 24, 2014 11:38 PM
Foreign fighters are making more of a mark on the battles raging across Syria and Iraq than initially thought. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more.
Video

Video Estimates Rising of Foreign Fighters in Iraq, Syria

Foreign fighters are making more of a mark on the battles raging across Syria and Iraq than initially thought. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more.
Video

Video Russians Head Into Holiday Facing Economic Malaise

Russian preparations for the New Year holiday are clouded by economic recession and a tumbling currency, the ruble. Nonetheless, people in the Russian capital appear to be in a festive mood. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Mombasa in Holiday Tourism Slump Due to Security Fears

Kenya's usually popular beachside tourist destination of Mombasa is seeing a much slower holiday season this year due to fears of insecurity as the country has suffered from a string of terror attacks linked to Somali militants. Mohammed Yusuf reports for VOA on how businessmen and tourists feel about the situation.
Video

Video For Somalis, 2014 Marked by Political Instability Within Government

While Somalia has long been torn apart by warfare and violence, this year one of the country's biggest challenges has come from within the government, as political infighting curtails the country's progress, threatens security gains and disappoints the international community. VOA's Gabe Joselow report.
Video

Video US Political Shift Could Affect Iran Nuclear Talks

Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to resolve Iran’s nuclear crisis are continuing into 2015 after Iran and six world powers failed to agree by a November deadline. U.S. domestic politics, however, could complicate efforts to reach a deal in the new year. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video NYSE: The Icon of Capitalism

From its humble beginnings in 1792 to its status as an economic bellweather for the world, the New York Stock Exchange is an integral part of the story of America. VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from Wall Street.
Video

Video Islamic State Emergence Transforms Syria and Iraq in 2014

The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a potent force in early 2014 changed the dynamics of the region. Their brutal methods - including executions and forced slavery - horrified the international community, drawing Western forces into the conflict. It also splintered the war in Syria, where more than 200,000 Syrians have died in the conflict. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell looks back at a deadly year in the region -- and what 2015 may hold.
Video

Video Massive Study Provides Best Look at Greenland Ice Loss Yet

The Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than predicted, according to a new study released in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences that combines NASA satellite data and aerial missions. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the finding means coastal communities worldwide could be at greater risk, sooner, from the impact of rising seas.
Video

Video US Marines, Toys for Tots Bring Christmas Joy

Christmas is a time for giving in the United States, especially to young children who look forward to getting presents. But some families don't have money to buy gifts. For nearly 70 years, a U.S. Marines-sponsored program has donated toys and distributed them to underprivileged children during the holiday season. VOA's Deborah Block tells us about the annual Toys for Tots program.
Video

Video France Rocked by Attacks as Fear of ISIS-Inspired Terror Grows

Eleven people were injured, two seriously, when a man drove his car into crowds of pedestrians Sunday night in the French city of Dijon, shouting ‘God is Great’ in Arabic. It’s the latest in a series of apparent ‘lone-wolf’ terror attacks in the West. Henry Ridgwell looks at the growing threat of attacks, which security experts say are likely inspired by the so-called "Islamic State" terror group.

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

All About America

AppleAndroid