The microbial sciences have provided great advances in our understanding of foodborne pathogens, leading to prescriptions for food safety standards and giving lawmakers and policy experts ways to protect human populations. However, when looking at the global community, it’s hard to ignore an even greater issue when it comes to food: the food insecurity that an estimated 795 million people grapple with on a daily basis, worldwide (FAO, The State of Food Insecurity 2015).
If we look a bit closer, we see that these issues cannot be measured solely on the number of people who have a certain level of caloric intake. Specifically, when looking at micronutrient deficiencies throughout the world, those numbers balloon to more than 2 billion people (USAID, Opportunities for Micronutrient Interventions). That would be the equivalent of more than 1 in 3 people you encounter on a daily basis being nutrient deficient.
While discussions about tackling these challenges often exclude or skim the surface of the role of microbes, microbiology, and in particular harnessing microbe-plant symbionts, has the potential to spark a second “Green Revolution.”
Fungal endophytes live in symbiosis with a vast majority of plant species on earth, and with the vast majority of the plant species humans cultivate for agricultural purposes. These symbionts have co-evolved for hundreds of millions of years, and formed some of the earliest symbioses on land.
Dr. Rusty Rodriguez and his team are one of the groups leading the charge in studying fungal endophytes and the ways in which we can harness their vast potential in agriculture. According to Dr. Rodriguez, there are at least four areas where microbes can be utilized to address issues of food security:
1. Symbiotic and free-living organisms can provide nitrogen and phosphorous to plants.
2. Symbiotic and free-living microorganisms can provide disease protection.
3. Symbiotic microorganisms can alter plant physiology and increase metabolic efficiency.
4. Symbiotic microorganisms can confer abiotic stress tolerance to plants.
Dr. Rodriguez and his team have used these principles in creating fungal inoculants for a number of important crop species, including rice and corn. To learn more, read Dr. Rusty Rodriguez’s full article in Cultures!
Scientists are also finding ways to use microbes to grow other key crops around the world. In this Cultures video, Dr. Ian Sanders and Dr. Alia Rodriguez show us how they are using the same principles to harness fungal endophytes to improve cassava production, a crop that feeds nearly a billion people worldwide!
Could microbes be the key to ensuring a food secure future? Comment below!