Unveiling Nature’s Agricultural Ally: Plant-Microbe Communication Boosts Crop Productivity

by Anna

Scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Singapore Center for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) have made a significant breakthrough in combating agricultural challenges through the discovery of agro-microbials—natural agro-chemicals that enhance the synergy between crops and microbes, ultimately elevating crop yield and productivity.

In a five-year study commencing in 2018, researchers explored the role of a well-known protective hormone, methyl jasmonate (MeJA), traditionally released by plants above ground during stress periods. Surprisingly, the study revealed that MeJA served as a communication tool between plants and the surrounding layers of soil microorganisms. This groundbreaking discovery, detailed in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, sheds light on a new dimension of plant-microbe interactions.

Key Findings of the Study

Subterranean Release of MeJA: Through a specially engineered airflow system, scientists observed, for the first time, that MeJA is released underground by plant roots in a volatile form.

Biofilm Formation Trigger: The presence of volatile MeJA triggers and enhances the formation of biofilms in bacteria situated at a distance from plant roots.

Boost in Plant Growth: Bacteria in the biofilm release volatile compounds that can increase plant growth by up to 30%.

Implications for Sustainable Agriculture

Associate Professor Sanjay Swarup, Principal Investigator at the Research Center on Sustainable Urban Farming (SUrF) and Deputy Research Director at SCELSE, emphasizes the manifold impact of this discovery on sustainable agriculture. The harnessing of agricultural microbes not only promises to boost crop productivity but also reduce reliance on synthetic inputs, mitigating the environmental impact of modern farming practices.

A New Era for Agro-Chemicals

Having uncovered nature’s own communication channel between plants and beneficial microbes, the research team has filed a patent for the application of this novel discovery. This could lead to a new generation of agro-chemicals or nature-structured chemicals designed to enhance plant benefits.

Addressing Global Food Security Challenges

With the global population projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, ensuring food security is a paramount challenge. Agro-microbials and nature-based agrochemicals emerge as promising strategies for sustainable agriculture, addressing the impacts of climate change, land degradation, and unpredictable weather events.

The ‘Fragrance’ of Plant Roots

The study reveals that the fragrant MeJA VOC emitted by plant roots can impact microbes from a distance, extending beyond the immediate rhizosphere. This finding highlights the elegant ways in which plants communicate over long distances, providing fundamental insights into plant-microbe interactions.

Dr. Omkar Kulkarni, joint first author of the paper and now a research scientist at the L’Oréal-SCELSE joint laboratory, notes the significance of the discovery, stating that it opens avenues for nature-based agrochemicals. Dr. Mrinmoy Mazumder, an NUS research fellow at SCELSE and joint first author, adds that the study holds both fundamental and translational significance, offering opportunities for stress management solutions in diverse crop varieties.

In summary, the study marks a crucial step toward sustainable and resilient agriculture, showcasing the potential of plant-microbe communication in enhancing crop productivity and contributing to global food security.

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