Three Irish Teens Win Google Science Fair Using Bacteria To Grow Food

Written by: Lisa Stelzner

Primary Source: Daily Dose of Science Blog

This news is two weeks old now, but I still think it’s worth sharing for its food production implications, and to showcase the success of young women in science.  At the 2014 Google Science Fair, which showcases science projects from teens around the world that are 13 to 18 years old, three Irish teenage girls won the grand prize for their project on treating oat and barley seeds with Rhizobium bacteria, which shortened time to germination and increased yields up to 70 percent.  Species of rhizobia are found in soils naturally, and help legumes (the bean family) create root nodules to “fix,” or convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonium that the plant can use – so they help legumes create their own fertilizer.  Rhizobia detect flavonoid compounds that legume roots release to know when conditions are right for them to produce nodules on the roots and start fixing nitrogen.

It is not a novel idea to see if rhizobia can also be beneficial to non-legumes – a Google search found that several other scientists have been studying how this could work for several years.  However, the other scientists have been studying smaller portions of the biochemical process behind how plant species react to compounds produced from rhizobia (from what I could find without thoroughly looking int it).  The way the Irish girls’ research is unique is that they chose to test two important cereal crops used in worldwide food production, apply a rhizobia coating directly to the seeds, and measured germination and plant yield at a large, replicated scale (the girls planted 9,500 seeds, both in a greenhouse environment and outside in the field!). None of the seeds or plants experienced negative effects from the rhizobia – germination of the seeds increased by 50%, and yield increased from an average of 30% up to 70%.  This led to the girl’s conclusion that their research could have major agricultural implications. Grass species produce flavonoid compounds just like legumes, so if rhizobia are detecting these and producing the same lipochitooligosaccharides (LCOs) that they produce in legumes (just without the nodule formation), this could be helping increase seed germination, as past research has found.

The girls’ research could allow farmers to apply rhizobia or bacteria to their seeds as a type of fertilizer, and then they could plant seeds earlier in the season, or in wetter conditions that in the past have led to seed rot, since seeds will be less likely to rot if they germinate twice as fast.   With increased yield, more grains could be produced per plant, and seedlings could grow faster to avoid being as susceptible to disease and harmful conditions near the ground when they are short and young.

The girls have already received a patent to incorporate their research in the malting step used for industrial brewing, and several research groups are interested in further discussing potentials of this research.

Here’s a National Geographic summary of the girls’ research:

Here are the details of the project from the Google Science Fair website:

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Lisa Stelzner
I'm a plant biology PhD student studying monarch butterflies in Michigan, but I'm interested in lots of other types of science, too. I am interested in how breeding monarch butterflies choose their habitat based on floral species richness and abundance. Few studies have been conducted on optimal foraging theory when it involves an organism searching for two different kinds of resources, and butterflies are an ideal study system to investigate this, since many species are ovipositing specialists and only lay eggs on one species of hostplant, but are feeding generalists and nectar from a broad variety of flowering forbs.