Just as people need to remain healthy to perform all the necessary activities of daily life, the health of soil plays a critical role in its ability to support production of food, fuel and fiber. Light, water and healthy soil are three essential natural resources required for agricultural productivity. There is growing, widespread awareness of the impact of human activities in agriculture on soil health and water quality. Due to depletion of the world's natural resources, it is essential to discover technologies that satisfy the requirements of economic, social and agricultural sustainability.
Microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi, that promote plant growth have been used extensively for many years in agriculture to offset fertilizer inputs such as nitrogen and phosphorous. At Noble Research Institute, I work with a special type of plant-growth-promoting fungus called Serendipita bescii, which resides inside plant roots and helps the plant receive nitrogen and phosphorous from soil more efficiently. This type of fungi is known as mycorrhiza (in Greek, “mykós” means fungus and “riza” means roots).
Although Serendipita fungi are well known for improving the growth of agronomically important crops, agriculture hasn’t been able to use them widely because of a shortage of available strains. I have addressed this limitation by isolating a strain of Serendipita called Serendipita bescii from Oklahoma — the first of its kind in North America. This is beneficial because using microorganisms native to U.S. soil would reduce the chance of negative side effects on soil health. For this reason, discovery of Serendipita bescii fills a major gap in field application for improving crop productivity in the United States.
Winter wheat (NF101) infected with Serendipita bescii (bottom) produces more grain heads when compared to uninfected plants (top).
Wheat is a cereal grown on more land area in the world than any other commercial food crop. Because the use of winter wheat as a dual-purpose forage and grain crop is critically important to the agricultural economies of the southern Great Plains, Noble Research Institute has developed and released a highly efficient hard red winter wheat cultivar called NF101 that is used as a dual-purpose cultivar in Oklahoma and north Texas.
For the past several years, I have extensively studied the lifestyle of Serendipita bescii both in the laboratory and in field trials to understand its mechanism and ability to increase the productivity of winter wheat. I found that Serendipita bescii could indeed improve root development and increase overall forage biomass and grain yield in winter wheat, especially in nutritionally poor soil and limited water conditions. This is particularly important for the agricultural economies of the southern Great Plains.
In my opinion, plant-growth-promoting microorganisms such as Serendipita bescii are invisible stewards of soil health that constantly are involved in restoring soil health and conserving ground water. Deploying them to improve agriculture productivity is an extremely attractive approach that at the same time can contribute to restoring soil health.