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It’s not just soil microbes that set crops up for success — it’s the right ones

Beautiful things can happen when plants surround themselves with the right microbes, according to researchers at the University of California (Riverside).

They looked at Acmispon strigosus, a plant in the pea family, and found a thirteenfold growth increase in plants that partnered with a highly effective strain of the nitrogen-fixing bacteria Bradyrhizobium.

The ability of plants to use beneficial microbes to boost their growth is not lost on agronomists. Some breeders think understanding the traits that enable crops to recruit top-performing microbes is key to the future of sustainable agriculture.

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A roadblock in capitalizing on the beneficial work of microbes is the complex genetic and environmental factors that govern their role in plant growth. Left unattended, plants don’t always recruit beneficial microbes, instead surrounding themselves with a mix of both helpful and ineffective bacteria. Attempts to manage the microbial populations plants encounter in the soil — by inoculating with beneficial strains — have largely failed.

“It is very difficult to predict which combinations of microbes will be successful under field conditions, since the microbes that are beneficial to plants in the lab do not always compete successfully against microbes that already exist in the field,” said Joel Sachs, a professor of evolutionary ecology.

“A promising alternative is to breed plants that are better at managing their own microbial partners, an advancement that will be passed down to future generations.”

The full study also showed genetic differences in the plant were the largest determining factor in microbe populations.

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