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HIGH YIELDS: Plant Microbes Key to Crop Increases, Disease Protection

June 25, 2015       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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Plant Microbes Key to Crop Increases

Microbes, help!

No, microbes help.

Yep, those little bugs may be helping agriculture evolve to meet the demands of an increasing global population without hurting the environment.

Michigan State University researcher James Kremer and colleagues in the labs of University Distinguished Professors Sheng Yang He and James Tiedje are working to understand how plant microbes -- the millions of microorganisms that reside in soil and plants just as they do in the human gut -- could be the key to reliable, high-yielding agriculture.

"The goal of our research is to unravel the complexity of the plant microbiome to understand its functions and benefits to plant health," says Kremer, adding:

"Intelligent tweaking of the plant microbiome could give rise to constellations of microbes that robustly increase yield and protect against disease." Kremer presented his findings at the 2015 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

The naturally occurring and complex community of plant-associated microbes -- called the plant microbiome -- elicits immune responses, actively sensing and responding to microbe-specific molecules.

To investigate how the plant microbiome functions, Kremer and his team used microbe-free seeds, sterile growth vessels and bottom-irrigated pots (FlowPots), to raise completely microbe-free plants rooted in a sterile potting mix.

"We seeded FlowPots with diverse microbial communities from various soils across North America and found that much like the microbes in our gut, the plant microbiome boosts plants' ability to fight diseases," said Kremer, who invented the FlowPot system and is now aiming to patent it.

The researchers have found that when microbe-free plants are exposed to speck disease in tomatoes, the disease was significantly higher than in plants with a microbiome.

"A lot more remains to be explored: how do plants recruit particular microbes? Which microbes work together to help the plant? What characteristics does a microbe need to invade and persist in a microbiome?" Kremer said.

"The untapped potential of plant microbiota foreshadows a bright and exciting future full of discoveries for microbiology, medicine and agriculture."

The research is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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