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Under The Microscope: Microbes Can Help Farmers

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media

Farmers and scientists have long understood that what lives beneath the soil affects how crops grow. Often, they work to fight plant diseases—warding off infectious viruses and damaging fungi, for example. But now some microbiologists are focused on how to harness the good things microbes can do, with the goal of increasing farmers’ yields and diminishing their dependence on chemical inputs.

Gwyn Beattie, a professor of bacteriology at Iowa State, and about two dozen other scientists recently published a report called How Microbes Can Help Feed the World. It’s a recognition that bacteria, viruses and fungi may have much more to offer than anyone is currently exploiting.

“The idea is if you sequence the genome of a microbe that’s beneficial, there are clues in there as to how it’s doing its good deeds,” Beattie said, at her lab on the Iowa State University campus in Ames.

Researchers have known for over a century that the bacteria rhizobia helps soybeans get nitrogen from the soil. Now, they can describe the complexities of that relationship.

“Once they both recognize the presence of each other, it’s like a key has been put in the door and this unlocks a process that unfolds that even involves the plant literally laying down cell wall material in a tunnel for the bacterium to come into the plant,” Beattie said. “It’s that sophisticated.”

Beattie says understanding at that level of detail could lead, eventually, to specific suggestions for farmers. A question that drives her: How do you grow your beneficial bacterial garden? Once she and other researchers can answer that, they want to help farmers use less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

While scientists hope that the microbes themselves may eventually lead to recommendations for farmers seeking to nurture soil health and gain productivity through crop rotation, some agricultural science companies already bring microbes to market. BASF, which calls itself “the world’s leading chemical company,” makes bacteria-based products that exploit the soybean-rhizobia connection.

Mark Howieson, BASF’s applications and analytics team leader in Ames, Iowa, says as academic researchers advance the study of microbes, companies like his can push new tools onto the landscape. 

“If you think about what they’re very good at, it’s discovery and finding new ideas and being very close to farmers and understanding what the challenges are,” Howieson said. “And if you look at a company like BASF, we’re very good at development and commercialization.”

The more farmers can make use of good microbes, the less they’ll need fertilizers and other chemicals. But it could take a while. Although Beattie is thrilled at the progress being made, each new study is just a very small piece of the puzzle.

“This is the poster child for Big Data in many ways because every single sample has billions of different organisms present in it,” she said, “and you need to have a lot of samples to answer any kind of question about agriculture.”

As she and her colleagues seek those answers, they are striving to reach the American Academy of Microbiology’s goal of reducing chemical inputs by 20 percent and increasing yields by 20 percent in the next 20 years – a tall order for those tiny critters.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.
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