U of M to Lead $500K Effort at Unlocking Secrets of Plant Microbiomes
Illustration courtesy of the University of Minnesota

U of M to Lead $500K Effort at Unlocking Secrets of Plant Microbiomes

Grant will enable new research network aimed at boosting ag sustainability.

Just as interest is spiking in understanding how microbes and bacteria living within the digestive system can affect human health, so are inquiries into their role in plant health. Now, with a new $500,000 federal grant in hand, the University of Minnesota will be at the forefront of coordinating future research on how agricultural microbiomes can be harnessed to help feed a growing world population.
The National Science Foundation in July made the award to the U of M’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, where Plant Pathology Professor Linda Kinkel will lead an “intercontinental scale” effort to establish a new network of researchers who for the first time will work together to focus broadly on agricultural plant and soil microbes.
Kinkel and her colleagues will use the federal funding to establish the Agricultural Microbiomes Project (AMP) research coordination network, which will become one of the NSF’s global Research Coordination Networks.
A more comprehensive understanding of how microbes and bacteria affect plant health is sorely needed to make agriculture more sustainable if it is to feed the projected global population of 9 billion by 2050, the scientists say.
The current understanding of the role of the microbiome in plants is mainly limited to certain areas, such as how fungi helps plant roots enhance nutrient uptake from the soil, or the role bacteria plays in legumes’ ability to absorb nitrogen. Most research until now has focused on individual species of bacteria rather than whole microbiomes, which is what the new network is seeking to change.
The broad goal of the Agricultural Microbiomes Project is to “establish an international network of agricultural microbiome researchers to facilitate and advance coordinated synthetic, collaborative and integrative scientific studies of agricultural plant and soil microbiomes.” This is to be accomplished by forging research collaborations and offering scholarships for students—especially those from “underrepresented demographics”—to participate in workshop-based education and training activities.
Its aim is a lofty one: to “provide the potential for continental-to-global scale microbiome analyses in agricultural systems.”
Kinkel said in a U of M news release it’s necessary for the world’s ag researchers get a better handle on the role of the microbiome if future food supply sustainability is to be ensured.
“We’ve long known that crop productivity is affected by the microbes in the soil,” she said. “We can enhance crop productivity by better understanding how this works and sharing this understanding throughout the research field.
“The grant means we can create an international network that will bring together researchers from academic, federal, and private company research laboratories. We need to share what we know about nutrient access and uptake, what suppresses plant pathogens, and how microbes play in plant-stress tolerance."
Key advances in technology are promising to make that possible. Leaps in DNA ­sequencing and related fields are for the first time allowing ag researchers to probe the mysterious and hyper-diverse microbial communities of fungi and bacteria associated with plants with increasing detail. What they are seeking is how that broad range of microbes can influence plant growth, immunity and environmental resilience in fundamental ways.
One of Kinkel’s colleagues in the NSF grant award, Posy Busby of Oregon State University, is calling for a “plant microbiome project” modeled after the recently completed Human Microbiome Project, which has made the development of new tools for analyzing human microbial genomes possible. That in turn has sparked a revolution in interest how gut microbes affect human health. 
The plant microbiome effort, meanwhile, would focus on understanding relationships impacting plant growth. It could boost agricultural production, including efficiency of nutrient use, stress tolerance and disease resistance.
"There has been no coordinated effort to consolidate and translate new ideas into practical solutions for farmers," Busby and her research collaborators wrote in a March scientific journal posting.
They have called for five broad research categories. Those include developing model host microbiome systems for crop and non-crop plants; defining the "core microbiome," or the set of organisms found in most plants; seeking to understand the rules of microbiome assembly and resilience; determining what kinds of mechanisms are at work in agricultural microbiome interactions; and studying how plant types, environmental factors, farm management strategies and microbiome composition all influence each other.