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Faster Screen Of Biologicals For Growth Stimulants, Disease Protection In Wheat And Corn

Researchers found a much faster way to screen soil bacteria as potential biostimulants and bio-pesticides. UJ scientists identified ten times more volatile signal compounds from the bacteria, compared to most recent studies.

For crops such as wheat, corn and tomatoes, plant-beneficial bacteria living in their  can significantly protect plants and boost their growth. Bacterial protection can be effective also when plants are stressed.

In a study published in Metabolites, researchers from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) show a much faster approach for screening bacteria for potential use as natural fertilizers and pesticides.

They grew four strains of promising rhizobacteria in the laboratory. Then they analyzed the  the bacteria produced with metabolomic techniques.

Using a new approach, they identified a surprising haul of 121 different  (VOCs) produced by just the four strains. This is between 10 and 20 times what most current published research studies identify.

Natural growth boost and protection

Among the 121 VOCs, they found three forms of . These VOCs were produced by three of the four strains of bacteria.

"We found three derivatives of salicylic acid: methyl salicylate, isoamyl salicylate and n-hexyl salicylate.

"Salicylic acid is a plant hormone that plays a big role in  and induction of resistance against disease," says Dr. Msizi Mhlongo. Mhlongo is the lead author of the study and senior lecturer at the UJ Department of Biochemistry.

Methyl salicylate is better known outside research circles for being the chemical behind the smell of "wintergreen," which is added to body lotions, sports injury patches and food.

Telling signals apart

The researchers used  to differentiate between the 121 VOC molecules.

"It is the instrument's sensitivity, high scanning rate, and its ability to distinguish molecular masses that are very close to each other, that made this possible. Also, the software's ability to separate out molecular peaks," adds Mhlongo.

All three forms of salicylic acid they found, are valuable for their ability to trigger Induced Systemic Resistance (ISR) in some crops. ISR is the root-driven "induced immune system" that helps plants protect themselves when they are stressed or under attack. Farmers can boost ISR in their crops with rhizobacteria seed coatings or inoculants.

Screening for biostimulants

"We were looking for the important signal molecules that these bacteria secrete to trigger a state of resistance in plants," says Dubery.

"Not all bacteria in the rhizosphere are active inducers of SAR or ISR. The purpose of this study was to find out which strains are better at inducing ISR," he adds.

They used Southern African strains of the rhizobacteria Pseudomonas koreensis, Pseudomonas fluorescens, Lysinibacillus sphaericus and Paenibacillus alvei. Prof Nico Labuschagne from the University of Pretoria supplied the strains from his collection of rhizobacteria isolates.

Previous glass house trials by Labuschagne in South Africa had identified the four strains for their biostimulant and bio-pesticide potential for wheat, corn and tomatoes.

"In general, the process of screening bacteria starts with isolating them from an environment such as a type of soil or wetland. You can screen them for the presence of a single molecule or a group of molecules. Then you would screen for safety, followed by glass house trials, then field trials, before releasing them commercially," says Dubery.

The plant 'gut biome'

During good conditions without much stress, rhizobacteria partner with plants and their roots, much like gut bacteria partner with their human hosts, says Dubery. The rhizobacteria enable plants to absorb nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, among many other activities.

During times of abiotic stresses, the rhizobacteria help defend their partner plants. This could be lack of water, high temperatures, or high salinity in the soil. Also, during biotic stresses such as being infected by fungi, viruses or pathogenic bacteria; or threatened by weeds or other plants; rhizobacteria step up to boost the chemical defenses of their partner plants.

The rhizobacteria accomplish all of this by producing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as those identified by the UJ researchers.

The VOCs act as communication signals such as "calling for help," biochemical defenses and biofertilizers in a variety of ways.

Rhizobacteria can signal to other microbes using VOCs, says Mhlongo. Microbes can signal to plants. It is even possible for plants to signal to microbes, he adds. They have previously authored a comprehensive review of research on this topic that the current study draws upon.

Screening before field trials

The results of the study show the high number of signaling molecules produced by the four strains of bacteria. Follow-up work would need to investigate the volume, concentration, and consistency of production.

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