Feeding the World with Microbes

Back in the mid 1900’s, after the tragic days of the Dust Bowl in North America, new agricultural techniques and technologies were developed and distributed in the name of food security. These developments included higher yielding plant varieties, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and advancements in irrigation and other management practices. This period in time was termed the Green Revolution, and it truly was a remarkable time. Agricultural advancements that came out of this period have helped us feed the world and stave of starvation for millions of people. Today, issues of hunger and starvation are political problems, not necessarily agricultural ones. However, the human population continues to grow, and today’s 7 billion people is projected to reach up to 10 billion (or more) in the coming decades. The world’s best farmland is either already in use, degraded, or being used for other things. This means that we must find a way to feed a growing population with the diminishing farmland that is available. We may be producing enough food now (despite the distribution problem), but will we be able to produce enough in the future? The hunt for the Green Revolution 2.0 is on.

“According to the [UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization], most of the growth in production…has to come from increasing yields from crops. Selective breeding doesn’t seem to be offering the types of dramatic yield increases seen in the past. Meanwhile, genetic engineering has yet to lead to any significant increase in yields. Now, many scientists are saying that we’ve been looking at the wrong set of genes.”

These are the words of Cynthia Graber, author of an article that appeared last month on PBS Online’s NOVANext entitled, “The Next Green Revolution May Rely on Microbes.” In it she explores the argument that increasing future yields will depend on better understanding the soil’s microbial community and its complex interaction with the plant community. The big question: if microbes can be artificially bred – the same way virtually all agricultural plants have been – might they help us increase food production?

Microbial life in the soil is incredibly diverse. In one teaspoon of soil, there can be millions of individual microbes including bacteria, fungi, protozoa, algae, and nematodes. Our current understanding of soil life is extremely limited, akin to our understanding of outer space and the depths of the oceans. That is because, as stated in Graber’s article, “perhaps 1% of all soil microbes can be grown in a petri dish, the conventional model for such research.” This limits our ability to study soil microbes and their interactions with other living things. We do, however, acknowledge that the interactions between the roots of plants and soil microbes is incredibly important.

Fruiting Body of an Ectomycorrhizal Fungus (photo credit: eol.org)

Fruiting Body of an Ectomycorrhizal Fungus (photo credit: eol.org)

One major player in these interactions is a group of fungi called mycorrhizae. “Mycorrhizal fungi cannot survive without plants, and most plants cannot thrive without mycorrhizal fungi.” It is a symbiotic relationship, in which the fungi offer plants greater access to water and nutrients, and plants feed sugars derived from photosynthesis to fungi. Recent advancements in genetics have allowed researchers to better analyze the genes in microbes like mychorrizal fungi and determine the functions of them. Through selective breeding, microbes can be produced that will offer even greater benefits to plants, thereby increasing yields. For example, some microbes help plants tolerate heat and drought. Isolating the genes that give microbes these abilities, and then breeding these genes into other microbes might allow for a wider palette of plants to receive this kind of assistance.

In researching this article, Graber followed a Swiss researcher to Colombia where he was testing lines of mychorrhizal fungi on cassava. The fungi were specifically selected to increase a plant’s access to phosphorous. This is one of many experiments that are now under way or in the works looking at specially bred microbes in agricultural production. It’s an exciting new movement, and rather than spoil too much more of Graber’s article, I implore you to read it for yourself. Share any comments you may have in the comment section below, and expect more posts about plant and microbe interactions in the future.

Cynthia Graber appeared at the beginning of a recent episode of Inquiring Minds podcast to talk about her article. I recommend listening to that as well.

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Corpse Flower Blooms Again

It is not often that a plant in bloom makes headlines, but that is precisely what happened last week when another corpse flower bloomed at Missouri Botanical Garden. Amorphophallus titanum, commonly known as titan arum or corpse flower, is a rare species, both in cultivation and in the wild. It also rarely flowers, and when it does, the bloom only lasts for a few short days. It has the largest known unbranched inflorescence, and its flowers give off the scent of rotting flesh. For all these reasons, it is understandable why a blooming corpse flower might make the news.

Titan arums naturally occur in the western portion of an Indonesian island called Sumatra. Their future is threatened because they occur in rainforests that are currently being deforested for timber and palm oil production. Deforestation is also threatening the survival of the rhinoceros hornbill, a bird that is an important seed distributor of titan arums. Today there are a few hundred titan arums in cultivation in botanical gardens throughout the world. They are a difficult species to cultivate, but their presence in botanical gardens is important in order to learn more about them and to help educate the public about conservation efforts.

Amorphophaulls titanium, titan arum (photo credit: eol.org)

(photo credit: eol.org)

Titan arums are in the arum family (Araceae), a family that consists of around 107 genera including Caladium (elephant ears), Arisaema (jack-in-the-pulpits), and Wolffia (duckweeds), a genus that wins the records for smallest flowering plant and smallest fruit. Titan arums are famous for their giant inflorescence, which can reach more than 10 feet tall. The flowering stalk is known botanically as a spadix, a fleshy stem in the shape of a spike that is covered with small flowers. The spadix of titan arums are wrapped with a leaf-like sheath called a spathe. Upon blooming, the temperature inside the spathe rises and the flowers begin to release a very foul oder, similar to the smell of rotting flesh. This attracts pollinating insects such as carrion beetles, sweat bees, and flesh flies, which get trapped inside the sheath and covered with pollen. After a few hours the top of the spadix begins to wither, allowing the insects to escape, off to pollinate a neighboring corpse flower [the spadix includes male and female flowers, which mature at different times in order to prevent self-pollination]. Once pollinated, the flowers begin to form small red fruits which are eaten by birds. The seeds are then dispersed in their droppings.

The large, stinky inflorescence is not the only structure that gives titan arums their fame. They are also know for their massive single leaf, which can reach up to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide, the size of a large shrub or small tree. All of this growth is produced from an enormous underground storage organ called a corm. The corms of mature titan arums typically weigh more than 100 pounds, with some known to weigh more than 200 pounds. Titan arums bloom only after the corms have reached a mature size, which takes from seven to ten years. After that they bloom about once a year or once every other year, depending on when the corm has accumulated enough nutrients to support the giant flowering structure.

Below are two time lapse videos of titan arums in bloom. The first is from Missouri Botanical Garden, and the second is from United States Botanic Garden.



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An Emerging Botanical Garden in Louisville, Kentucky

There is a new botanical garden being constructed in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s called Waterfront Botanical Gardens, and it is being built on top of an old landfill. The landfill was in use for several decades during the mid-1900’s and officially closed in 1973 when a new landfill site was opened. Recently, there was discussion about what to do with the old landfill site. Botanica, a group of plant lovers and devoted gardeners in Louisville, was able to work out a deal with the city to secure the 23 acre site and is currently moving forward with plans to turn it into a botanical garden.

Botanica’s vision for the garden is broad, but part of that vision includes educating the public about native flora and promoting environmental stewardship. Planning and construction are still at their early stages and there is tons of work ahead, but considering that people in Louisville have been wanting to see a botanical garden in their city for at least 30 years, watching it finally start to happen must be exciting. To celebrate the emergence of Waterfront Botanical Gardens, the Founders’ Garden was constructed and planted this spring. It is located near the site of the future botanical garden and is a small token of things to come. A picture of that garden (taken from the website) can be seen below.

I am excited to watch from afar as this new botanical garden emerges, and I hope to be able to visit someday after the garden has been constructed. To learn more about this garden and to follow its progress, visit their website: www.waterfrontgardens.org

waterfront botanical_founders garden

The Founder’s Garden at Waterfront Botanical Gardens

Louisville, Kentucky

Cushion Plants and Species Richness

Cushion plants are in the news. A study published in the journal, Ecology Letters, has demonstrated that cushion plants can help increase species richness (the number of unique species in an ecological community) by modifying their micro-environment, which in turn allows certain species to exist in the community that would otherwise be unable to survive the harsh conditions. Other studies have had similar conclusions, but what is unique about this study is how extensive it was, involving 77 alpine plant communities on 5 continents.

The term “cushion plant” refers to a specific growth form. It describes a plant that grows low to the ground, has numerous small leaves and a closed, tightly-packed canopy with dense non-photosynthetic living and dead plant tissues below the canopy. Above ground it appears as a lush, thick, spreading, green mat; below ground it has a long taproot and an extensive root system. There are around 338 species of cushion plants, spanning 78 genera and 34 plant families, which can be found around the world mainly in alpine (high-altitude, tree-less) environments. Around half of the cushion plant species are native to the Andes in South America.

So, how are cushion plants able to increase species richness in their communities? There are a few unique characteristics of cushion plants that lead to this result:

– The tightly-packed, low to the ground growth form of cushion plants helps to modify the temperature of the underlying soil, working as a living mulch to keep the ground warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Plants that otherwise could not abide in extremely cold soil conditions, can thrive inside of a cushion plant due to this modification.

– The shading and covering of the ground also helps to maintain a higher level of soil moisture below cushion plants, resulting in more available water throughout the growing season, which is especially important during warm months of the year when water becomes scarce elsewhere.

– Cushion plants may also increase nutrient availability in the surrounding soil. This could be due to their long taproots and extensive root systems allowing them to “mine” the soil and pull up nutrients (and water) that would otherwise be unavailable to shallow-rooted plants. It could also be due to the high degree of dead plant material found within cushion plants that leads to an increase in the amount of organic material in the soil below. The warm, moist conditions of a cushion plant’s underbelly could speed up the rate of decomposition and nutrient cycling, making essential nutrients available to plants growing within them.

Because of these features, cushion plants act as “nurse plants” to species that grow within their mats, providing them with more accommodating soil temperatures, greater access to water, and a higher level of nutrients compared to the surrounding open ground. Some of these plant species would have little or no chance of survival in the harsh environment outside of the cushion plant. Cushion plants are also considered foundation species or keystone species because they play such a strong role in structuring their ecological community, affecting the diversity of species found in the landscape and the abundances of those species.

Silene acualis

A common and popular cushion plant: Silene acaulis. Common name: moss campion. Plant family: Caryophyllaceae. Occurs in high mountains of North America and Eurasia. Photo credit: wikimedia commons.

cushion plant as nurse plant

An example of a cushion plant with another plant species growing within it. Photo credit: wikimedia commons.