Hardier rice crops without genetic modification? Tweaking its microbiome is one option

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Credit: Research Matters
Credit: Research Matters

Yes, plants have microbiomes, too, and those billions of tiny hitchhikers can help them grow and fight off invading pathogens. Researchers are trying to understand these microbial communities and adjust them to help plants become more resistant to drought, heat and infection. 

[Microbiologist Tomislav] Cernava and his team described the microbiome of rice seeds in a new paper published in January in Nature Plants. His team wasn’t just looking for a microbiome anywhere it could find one, though—it was trying to solve a puzzle. 

Chinese scientists had found that some rice plants in the coastal Zhejiang province were failing because of an infection by a bacteria called Burkholderia plantarii, while others were immune… On closer examination, Cernava found that the plants that were susceptible to infection had a different seed microbiome. 

Immunity from the infection could be transferred to susceptible plants by adding more Sphingomonas to their microbiome or by adding the protective acid directly to the susceptible plant.

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“Forget genetic engineering,” says [plant biologist Sheng-Yang] He. “If we can transplant that kind of [microbial] community to plants that normally don’t have that community, wouldn’t that be wonderful?”  

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