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Bacteria in Tree Branches Serve as Natural Fertilizer

FILE - A new study suggests that bacteria living in the branches of trees may play a crucial role in the plant's health.

Bacteria living in a plant’s branches may play a crucial role in allowing the plant to thrive.

Writing in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers from the University of Washington say the trees they studied appear to have benefited from bacteria to “provide valuable nutrients to help the plant grow.”

Bacteria have long been known to benefit plants with root nodules, which are bacteria rich and allow the roots to “fix” nitrogen gas in the soil into a form that the plant can use. This group of plants includes soybeans, clover, alfalfa and lupines.

The UW study, however shows similar processes appear to happen in the tree branches.

Specifically, the researchers studied a group of poplar trees growing in “rocky, inhospitable” terrain. They found a highly diverse microbial community.

“This variability made it especially difficult to quantify the activity, but is the key to the biology since it is probably only specific groupings of microorganisms that are working together to provide this nutrient to the host,” said Sharon Doty, a professor in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

The discovery could have major implications for other plants like corn, tomatoes and peppers as well a turf grasses and trees, which are typically fed with fossil fuel-based fertilizers.

“Having access to the key microbial strains that help wild plants thrive on just rocks and sand will be crucial for moving agriculture, bioenergy and forestry away from a dependence on chemical fertilizers and towards a more natural way of boosting plant productivity,” Doty said.

The next step for researchers is to find out which microbes have the biggest effect on a plant’s health.

A recent study said that there could be over one trillion species of microbes on Earth, only a small fraction of which have been identified.