Biology Professor Discovers Crop-Boosting Bacteria
Dr. Neil Emery’s research in Trent Water Quality Centre used by agriculture innovator commercializing fertilizer with helpful plant hormones
A chemical conversation between plants and bacteria is turning into talk among Canadian farmers, as a new natural fertilizer that encourages plant growth in drought conditions hits the shelves.
The new biofertilizer, M-BOS, was recently launched by Toronto-based NutriAg Ltd., a company specializing in the field of plant nutrition and crop technology, and is based on ten years of research led by Trent Biology professor, Dr. Neil Emery.
Professor Emery and his team cultivated a naturally occurring bacteria that can feed on plant waste (methyl alcohol) and produce growth-promoting hormones in return.
“Plants are naturally conservative–they can shut down quite quickly, and even mild droughts may reduce seed production,” says Professor Emery. “But this research has identified strains of a beneficial bacteria—Methylobacteria—that consume methyl alcohol released from plants. As an exchange, they stimulate plants with hormones that boost growth and help plants through some of those mild stresses.”
Sorting the wheat from the chaff with the right tools
Prof. Emery and his team conducted most of their research using the state-of-the-art mass spectrometry equipment in Trent’s Water Quality Centre. Here they used one of the Centre’s cutting-edge organic mass spectrometers that has the ability to identify molecular formulas of these complex compounds through very precise measurements.
“We need the type of precision because there are so many chemicals in a plant,” Prof. Emery explains. “This instrument can sort through all of that to look for key performance compounds that you didn’t even know existed. It was instrumental to characterizing the biofertilizer.”
Innovation with industry
Prof. Emery’s research has received close to $1 million in funding over the past ten years, which has made the development of this new product possible. The Emery Lab has been collaborating NutriAg for several years to take the product from the lab to the field.
Laboratory and industry trials of the bacteria-based fertilizer have resulted in a minimum ten percent increase in plant growth, with the product yielding good results on a number of different crops, including beans, lentils, tomatoes and corn.
“The reason it works is because the bacteria tell the plant to make better use of what they got,” explains Prof. Emery. “They understand they are in a luxury situation without having to add industrial fertilizers.”
Cultivating future research
Prof. Emery and the team believe that the new biofertilizer might hold further benefits, not yet identified, and will be conducting further research in collaboration with NutriAg and the Ontario Genomics Institute.
“Drought and heat are the two main climate change concerns for farmers, as well as low nutrients,” says Prof. Emery. “Some of our innovative findings show that the Methylobacteria prevented yield losses to drought for lentils. With Canada being the largest lentil producer in the world, this would be a significant benefit to farmers.”
Trent will receive royalties of M-BOS sales for the next 20 years. Canadian Farmers interested in the M-BOS can contact NutriAg.
Learn more about the state-of-the-art Water Quality Centre at Trent University.