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Harnessing plant microbiomes for sustainable agriculture

Research shows that harnessing plant microbiome – bacteria that live in roots, leaves and soil– can help in creating cleaner, pesticide free agricultural practices

In Africa, where soil health is a growing issue of concern in agriculture, researchers believe that microbial science could be vital in finding alternatives to pesticides and artificial fertilisers that can improve farm productivity.

Plant microbiome —bacteria living in roots, leaves and soil that help plants absorb minerals and nutrients, fight disease, and resist drought and heat – is being studied to find such alternatives. The plant microbiome could be key to generating more food without the side effects such as pollution, environmental degradation and toxic residues from chemical pesticides, Fast CoExist reported.

“The microbiome has a lot of potential for agriculture because we know that microbes have a lot of influence on plants, how well they grow, how they resist pests and diseases, and how well seeds germinate,” said Kelly Smith, director of microbial development at AgBiome, a startup in Durham, North Carolina.

“If we can understand how to harness microbes to do specific things, we will have the ability to carry out a lot of the same functions that we currently depend on chemical pesticides and fungicides to do” Smith added. Microbes could help improve soil fertility and strengthen plant resistance to insect pests and diseases and help plants tolerate temperature fluctuations.

AgBiome is currently identifying microbes that can control weevils that attack sweet potato plants in sub-Saharan Africa. Supported by a grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, AgBiome has already established a diverse collection of plant-associated microbes and has fully sequenced and annotated the genomes for greater than 26,000 microbial strains. The grant will support the isolation, sequencing, and testing of microbes associated with US and African sweet potato plants in an effort to discover microbes that are capable of controlling the weevil.