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Microbes Could Aid Plant Growth

As technology and modern medicine continue to advance, the human microbiome is becoming less mysterious. Most people now understand that their bodies are populated by a variety of different bacteria, many of which support bodily functions like digestion. In recent years this microbiome has been linked to any number of conditions including arthritis and obesity. Attempts at managing this microbiome, including the use of probiotic supplements, have also seen increases despite an incomplete understanding of how or whether they are effective.

Like humans, plants also play host to a microbial community of their own. Similarly, this microbiome is believed to impact plant health in any number of ways. Some agriculture companies have noted the similarity and begun producing and selling products designed to encourage the growth of so-called good microbes. However, these products are not always effective.

Sarah Lebeis, assistant professor of microbiology, believes the missing piece in this puzzle can be attributed to the effect of certain bacteria on plant microbiomes. Her work could explain why some products designed to help plants grow are ineffective and even illuminate a path toward more consistent successes with these products.

“What we’d like to do is define if these particular bacteria play a role that might prevent good bacteria from coming in. They’ll prevent the pathogens from coming in, but do they also prevent the good bacteria from coming in, and can we figure out ways to make the good bacteria compatible?” said Lebeis.

In the first year of her project, Lebeis’ JDRD team focused on Streptomyces, a particularly large genus of bacteria, and how it may be impacting the microbes allowed into a plant. For the second year, the project is shifting focus to a different bacteria; Pantoea.

“We’re really interested in how microbes can help plants to grow. So what’s cool about having these two subsequent JDRD years is it’s allowing us to look at different types of bacteria that can colonize plants and then also shape what communities become,” said Lebeis.

Her team has already experienced several positive outcomes from the work, including a Community Science Project grant from the Joint Genome Institute in the Department of Energy. One of the students working on the project also received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program award, making room for Lebeis to support another student to join her team.

Moving forward, Lebeis plans to use her JDRD results as proof of concept to pursue continued funding for the work.