Amazing how the Agricultural Revolution started 10,000 years ago, yet we still know so little about plant growth. We’ve been tossing bulk carrier loads of fertilizer at plants all over the world, but wasting some of it, and putting up with poorer yields and slower growth by not paying enough attention to the microbiology under the surface.
Obviously good scientific research, real science, can still deliver big improvements. Here’s a study showing that fruit trees, which normally take six years to reach maturity, can get there in three or four with the help of the right bacteria and fungi. This would help us adapt to climate change (of whatever kind is coming), help with reforestation, help feed the starving and improve the ability of these trees to survive during drought conditions too.
It applies to not just one or two species but to many kinds of trees: oaks, pines, mesquites, acacias, citrus and guava. Presumably this would help the “direct action” plan store more carbon in our soils too, not that that will change the weather, but it will help improve our soils:
“…the beneficial bacteria are located in the immediate area surrounding the root or rhizosphere, and among these bacteria are a group classified as “growth promoters,” which fulfill the function of helping the plant development and protect it from the attack of pathogenic microorganisms or by producing phytohormones; these substances allow a supply of nutrients and water.
The fungi that provide benefits, says Olalde Portugal, are the called myccorrhizal. When in contact with the roots a biochemical communication starts that allows the trees to adapt with no problems when transplanted. Besides, the microorganism is responsible for exploring the ground beyond the reach of the roots and brings them useful elements for their development, like phosphorus.
This is not an esoteric minor improvement — they’re talking about more efficient photosynthesis:
…the specialist stresses that the plant with myccorrhizal fungi perform photosynthesis in a more efficient way, using less water than those who don’t have the association. At the same time, all physiological processes change, resulting in rapid developing trees.
This would have to improve yields of crops as well. Adapting to climate change (when we are so bad at predicting it) is the only policy that makes sense. If funding for efforts to change the weather was sucked dry and fed into research like this we would all be healthier and wealthier. Some people (the poorest of the poor) would be better fed too. These microbes are sophisticated self-replicating nanotechnology (or perhaps “microtechnology”) — we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Hundreds of millions of years of evolution has already tested and produced tiny chemical factories ready to help us.
Microbes extend plant roots, increasing absorbing area by up to 1000 fold
Mycorrhizal Management describes how these microbes help plants get nutrients out of the soil, and why they may have made it possible for marine plants to colonize land 400 million years ago.
“Mycorrhizal root systems increase the absorptive the absorbing area of roots 10 to 1000 times thereby greatly improving the ability of the plants to utilize the soil resource. (Figure 4). Mycorrhizal fungi are able to absorb and transfer all of the 15 major macro and micro nutrients necessary for plant growth. Mycorrhizal fungi release powerful chemicals into the soil that dissolve hard to capture nutrients such as phosphorous, iron and other “tightly bound” soil nutrients. This extraction process is particularly important in plant nutrition and explains why non mycorrhizal plants require high levels of fertility to maintain their health. Mycorrhizal fungi form an intricate web that captures and assimilates nutrients conserving the nutrient capital in soils. In non mycorrhizal conditions much of this fertility is wasted or lost from the system.”
“Commercial production of mycorrhizal fungi for practical use has been available in the last decade, however, the importance of mycorrhizal fungi has been evident for some 400 million years. The earliest fossil records of the roots of land plants contain evidence of the fossil remains of mycorrhizal fungi. Scientists now believe that the “marriage” of mycorrhizal fungus and plant played an essential role in the evolutionary step which brought aquatic plants from sea to land. At some point in the evolutionary process, a filament penetrated into the outer cells of a primitive plant root. Once there, it accommodated itself so nicely that a new, more complex entity emerged, the mycorrhiza. The increased absorbing area provided by an elaborate system of fungal filaments allowed aquatic plants to leave the marine environment and exploit a relatively harsh soil environment.”
– Michael P. Amaranthus, Ph.D. 1999
Probiotics for your soil?
For those of you who are gardeners there are products you can already buy to improve your home grown flora. Some farmers are aware and have been using microbiology to improve their garden and farm for years.
Photos from CAES (see Soil Inoculants above) and Mycorrhizal Management
Investigación y Desarrollo (2013, September 11). Bacteria enhance growth of fruit trees up to 40 percent. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 12, 2013, from