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Scientists Present Plan to Use Microbiology in Agriculture to Multiply Global Yields

First Posted: Aug 30, 2013 12:21 PM EDT

A greater focus on the role of microbiology in agriculture combined with new technologies can help mitigate potential food shortages associated with world population increases according to a new report from the American Academy of Microbiology.

"Microbes are essential partners in all aspects of plant physiology, but human efforts to improve plant productivity have focused solely on the plant," says Ian Sanders of University of Lausanne, chair of the colloquium that produced the report. "Optimizing the microbial communities that live in, on and around plants, can substantially reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides."

Science World Report reported about one such innovation earlier this month: World Changing Technology Could Multiply Global Agriculture Output by Using Nitrogen From Air. All plants need ammonia to grow, but only very few legumes have microbe helpers that let them fix the required nitrogen from the atmosphere. All other rely on external input. Scientists found a way to add these microbes to any other plant as well, and expect the technology to be ready for application in just 3 years.

Today, nitrates are one of the most important, but also most problematic, components of artificial fertilizer -- researchers estimated in a recent study, How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world, (awarded with the Nobel Prize for its inventor Fritz Haber in 1918) that up to half of the current world population can be fed only thanks to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. But the run-offs also pollute lakes (currently half of all U.S. lakes) and oceans, leading to huge dead-zones, discolored and oxygen-depleted, unusable for healthy eco-systems. Using microbes instead should lead to even higher agriculture output, while saving huge amounts of energy and labor, thus decreasing costs, while at the same time avoiding environmental damage.

Sounds too good to be true? But it actually works like this, thanks to modern science -- after all, the green revolution of the past decades allowed 3 billion more people to live, so why should we not be able to repeat this now that we have much better tools than 60 years ago and are currently decrypting and analysing the genomes of plants and bacteria to optimize them.

The report, How Microbes can Help Feed the World, is based on the deliberation of a group of scientific experts who gathered for two days in Washington DC in December 2012 to consider a series of questions regarding how plant-microbe interactions could be employed to boost agricultural productivity in an environmentally and economically responsible way.

It starts with a startling statistic: In order to feed the estimated global population of 9 billion in the year 2050, agricultural yields will have to increase by 70-100% .

Improved understanding of plant-microbe interactions has the potential to increase crop productivity by 20% while reducing fertilizer and pesticide requirements by 20%, within 20 years, according to the report. These estimates rest on the recognition that all plants rely on microbial partners to secure nutrients, deter pathogens and resist environmental stress.

The report looks in depth at the intimate relationship between microbes and agriculture including why plants need microbes, what types of microbes they need, how they interact and the scientific challenges posed by the current state of knowledge. It then makes a series of recommendations, including greater investment in research, the taking on of one or more grand challenges such as characterization of the complete microbiome of one important crop plant, and the establishment of a formal process for moving scientific discoveries from the lab to the field.

"New technologies are making plant-microbe ecosystems easier to study and investment in this area of research could have dramatic benefits," says Marilynn Roossinck, Pennsylvania State University, who helped organize the colloquium. -- American Academy of Microbiology

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