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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

America's Most Exotic Presidential Pets

From alligators to bears, the White House has been home to some unusual presidential pets over the years 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.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs