How do you grow healthier, hardier plants for livestock and people? One answer may lie in the relationship between naturally occurring, beneficial microbes and prairie grass commonly seen in the Great Plains.
Researchers at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), and the University of Oklahoma recently received a five-year, $11 million grant from the United States Department of Energy to study plant-microbe interactions in switchgrass.
The grant will enable co-principal investigators Kelly Craven, Ph.D., Michael Udvardi, Ph.D., Wolf Scheible, Ph.D., and Malay Saha, Ph.D., (all with the Noble Foundation), the group at LLNL, and principal investigator Mary Firestone, Ph.D., (UC Berkeley) to study soil microbial populations in and around switchgrass plants that grow well (or poorly) on nutritionally-depleted soils.
“We know microbes help plants survive and thrive throughout the world, and many are critical when the plant is stressed by poor soil quality and/or water limitation,” Craven said. “If we can reveal the key processes or microbial community members that are required for a healthy, living soil, then we can potentially use them to not only produce a bioenergy feedstock with minimal inputs but to do so in a sustainable manner.”
Understanding how such microbes promote the prairie grass to grow in nutrient-deficient, marginal soils will have impacts not only for switchgrass, but also for forage and crop-based agriculture in general.
“We see switchgrass as a model for low-input agriculture,” Craven said. “Understanding the biology enabling this successful prairie grass to survive with minimal inputs and still produce high yields will hopefully enable us to grow healthier, hardier plants for livestock and humans.”