19 October 2015

Microorganisms to increase the yield of crops


A new European research collaborative will examine the possibility of exploiting bacteria and fungi living in plants to increase the yield of crops, in a natural and environmentally friendly manner. Professor David B. Collinge from the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen coordinates the project named BestPass and funded by 4 million euros from the EU's Horizon 2020 programme.

“Many are accustomed to think of microbes as being damaging to plants. But when you look inside the plant, you can find an entire ecosystem of bacteria and fungi that actually helps the plant,” says David B. Collinge, professor at the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

Under his leadership, 15 PhD students will use the next four years to explore the possibilities of a practical application of these beneficial microorganisms.

Microorganisms that live in plant tissues, also termed 'endophytes', cover a myriad of different kinds of fungi and bacteria. The beneficial ones can help the host plant in a multitude of ways.

“Some endophytes, for example, stimulate the plant to grow. They do this primarily because it is better for them to stay in a large and healthy plant than a little sick one, and that benefits the plant. This is achieved in several ways, for example by microorganisms providing extra minerals to the plant from the soil, reducing stress reactions in the plant during drought, or helping to fight various diseases”, explains David B. Collinge.

The project aims to map the interactions between plants and micro-organisms, and to find ways to enhance their beneficial effects. Hopefully, this will help reduce the demand for pesticides and fertilizers in the future.

A symbiosis between companies and researchers
The research project is a collaboration between a number of international research institutions and companies. This provides an important perspective to the project, says David B. Collinge.

“The project is supported by two pillars. Thus the industrial partners will focus on finding a practical use for endophytes whilst the work at the universities and other institutes will concentrate on creating new knowledge in the field. Here the focus will be to understand the physiological mechanisms behind the beneficial effect of the endophytes on the plant,” he explains.

This dual approach was, according to him, a decisive factor in being awarded the grant from the EU, since the project supports both developing the skills of new researchers and provides potential benefits for biotech companies involved.

PhD students who will be working at the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, will, among other topics, examine how beneficial microorganisms affect the composition of metabolites in tomatoes. This will be done in order to check whether we can eventually promote the content of beneficial nutrients. They must also work to understand how the relationship between plants and endophytes are controlled by hormones, and what happens when the hormonal balance is altered.