Micro-organisms will help African farmers: Soil microbes to the rescue

March 14, 2017

Sorghum is the fifth most important cereal in the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, many farmers rely on this grain for food and feed. But Striga, a parasitic weed, can have a devastating impact on crop yield. With an 8-million-dollar grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an international team will now explore the potential of soil microbes to offer crop protection. The Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) is coordinating this 5-year project.

With the world population growing and environmental problems increasing, we're facing a huge challenge to secure our food production. How can we feed so many people in a sustainable way? Fortunately, nature has billions of potential helpers on offer. Microbes are often associated with disease and decay. But the vast majority supports us with essential services, ranging from purifying our water to breaking down toxins and protecting crops against diseases and pests.

Hunger and poverty

In Sub-Saharan Africa, sorghum is a major resource for food and feed. But its production is severely constrained by the parasitic plant Striga. Known as 'witch weed', this widespread, purple-flowered beauty feasts on the roots of sorghum and there isn't much smallholder farmers can do. Current research shows that the average yield loss of sorghum in Sub-Saharan Africa due to Striga can exceed 50%, aggravating poverty and hunger. But this could be about to change.

NIOO microbial ecologist and project coordinator Jos Raaijmakers is leading an effort to search for new sustainable solutions to this old but growing problem. Over the next five years, an African-American-European research team will do exactly that. The project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been aptly named PROMISE, which stands for 'Promoting Root Microbes for Integrated Striga Eradication'.

"Our goal is to reduce the substantial damage to sorghum caused by Striga with the help of micro-organisms," explains Raaijmakers. "The PROMISE project will carry out the first step by mapping the potential of micro-organisms present in African soils. Our strength lies in an ecosystem approach, studying the 'teamwork' between microbes, plants, soil characteristics and management practices used by farmers. There is no 'silver bullet' or holy grail: the solution asks for an integrated strategy."

Training local researchers

The team consists of scientists from the Netherlands, Ethiopia and the United States. NIOO's research partners are the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR,Ethiopia), the company AgBiome and the University of California, Davis (United States), and the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute and University of Amsterdam (Netherlands). Together, they will carry out research from lab to greenhouse and field.

Ethiopia was chosen as it is one of the countries where the impact of Striga on sorghum is most devastating. For the project to make a lasting contribution to solving the problems of these farmers, it will be vital to improve local research facilities, train local researchers and share knowledge.

So what might an actual solution look like? Raaijmakers: "We are thinking in more than one direction. For instance, we hope to protect sorghum plants with micro-organisms that suppress Striga infections as well as micro-organisms that can reduce the large number of Striga seeds present in the African soils." This will take time to develop. "We expect the first practical applications in ten years from now."
-end-
For more about the PROMISE project please visit: http://www.promise.nioo.knaw.nl

With more than 300 staff members and students, NIOO is one of the largest research institutes of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). The institute specialises in water and land ecology. As of 2011, the institute is located in an innovative and sustainable research building in Wageningen, the Netherlands. NIOO has an impressive research history that stretches back 60 years and spans the entire country, and beyond.

Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW)

Related Microbes Articles from Brightsurf:

A new look at deep-sea microbes
Microbes found deeper in the ocean are believed to have slow population turnover rates and low amounts of available energy.

Microbes might manage your cholesterol
Researchers discover a link between human blood cholesterol levels and a gene in the microbiome that could one day help people manage their cholesterol through diet, probiotics, or entirely new types of treatment.

Can your gut microbes tell you how old you really are?
Harvard longevity researchers in collaboration with Insilico Medicine develop the first AI-powered microbiomic aging clock

What can be learned from the microbes on a turtle's shell?
Research published in the journal Microbiology has found that a unique type of algae, usually only seen on the shells of turtles, affects the surrounding microbial communities.

Life, liberty -- and access to microbes?
Poverty increases the risk for numerous diseases by limiting people's access to healthy food, environments and stress-free conditions.

Rye is healthy, thanks to an interplay of microbes
Eating rye comes with a variety of health benefits. A new study from the University of Eastern Finland now shows that both lactic acid bacteria and gut bacteria contribute to the health benefits of rye.

Gut microbes may affect the course of ALS
Researchers isolated a molecule that may be under-produced in the guts of patients.

Gut microbes associated with temperament traits in children
Scientists in the FinnBrain research project of the University of Turku discovered that the gut microbes of a 2.5-month-old infant are associated with the temperament traits manifested at six months of age.

Gut microbes eat our medication
Researchers have discovered one of the first concrete examples of how the microbiome can interfere with a drug's intended path through the body.

Microbes can grow on nitric oxide
Nitric oxide (NO) is a central molecule of the global nitrogen cycle.

Read More: Microbes News and Microbes Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.