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More Food from Fungi?

To feed an exploding global population, scientists have called for a doubling of food production over the next 40 years. Genetic manipulation might seem the best way to quickly boost characteristics essential to plant growth and crop yields. New findings from different laboratories, however, suggest that fungi, bacteria and viruses could be an exciting alternative to increase agricultural productivity.

Scientists have long known that microbes can work symbiotically with plants. For instance, mycorrhizal fungi, which are associated with 90 percent of land plants, extend from roots to bring in moisture and minerals in exchange for plant carbohydrates. But microbes have recently been found among plant cells themselves and seem to confer benefits, such as more efficient photosynthesis and increased ability to fix nitrogen from the air. In fact, Mary E. Lucero, a biologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Jornada Experimental Range in Las Cruces, N.M., believes that plants actively recruit these microbes rather than simply being passive hosts for them.

In the lab, Lucero has given this recruitment a hand by transferring fungi from four-wing saltbush to grama grass, which is important for grazing cattle. The fungi-infused grass grew larger and produced more seed, probably by improving nutrient uptake and water usage, she speculates. Lucero also points out that harnessing microbial help for capturing nitrogen could reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. “It is far easier, more efficient and less expensive to inoculate a plant with a beneficial fungi than to come up with a genetically modified species,” she remarks.

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