How peas and beans can help farmers boost their crops

An innovative new technology developed by Murdoch University researcher Sofie De Meyer has received $30,000 in State Government funding to support entrepreneurs in the agriculture or aquaculture industries.

Dr De Meyer’s MALDI-ID technique could revolutionise the production of crops such as wheat and barley by isolating bacteria in the root nodules of legumes, such as peas and beans, which fix atmospheric nitrogen and boost growth for subsequent crops.

The technology is one of six projects awarded by the State Government to develop innovative research that could lead to new businesses, create jobs and diversify the economy.

MALDI-ID is a novel technique which identifies directly the most beneficial bacteria for farmers’ crops, using mass spectrometry to get a fast readout. Within minutes, farmers know whether they need to buy root nodule bacteria to inoculate their plants.

Dr De Meyer said her method is faster and cheaper than traditional techniques because it can be applied directly to the root nodules and does not require the isolation of the bacteria.

“The key in having the correct bacteria in these root nodules defines what yield and what amount of nitrogen that can be fixed, so it’s really crucial for the farmer to know whether they have the correct rhizobium, and whether it’s working as it should be working,” Dr De Meyer said.

“What we actually do is we generate a fingerprint of that root nodule and then we compare that fingerprint with a database we have, which has all the current rhizobia inoculants in it. It means that they will need less fertiliser because all that nitrogen from the legume is put into the ground and it’s available for the wheat and barley crop. So they’re saving time and they’re saving money.”

Technology could revolutionise fertiliser industry

The agriculture industry in Australia uses 5.3 million tonnes of fertiliser each year to both maintain and increase plant growth. Not only does this create a financial burden to farmers, it also results in serious environmental impacts. Legume roots produce a major fertiliser nutrient naturally.

Nitrogen is produced in nodules that form on the roots of legumes by the rhizobium bacteria contained inside. The bacteria take nitrogen from the air and convert it to ammonia, which is a fertiliser for the plant.

Pasture and pulse legumes are a unique group of plants that can transform atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia (plant nitrogen fertiliser) using root nodule bacteria called rhizobia.

The ammonia is then converted into organic compounds by the plant and used for growth. The amount of nitrogen fixed by legumes is strongly linked to productivity and can yield up to 300 kg/ha per year under good growing conditions. Therefore, these rhizobia are especially important in Australia as many agricultural soils are naturally deficient in available nitrogen.

However, none of the agricultural legumes used in Australia are native and hence these rhizobia are not naturally present in the soils. Therefore, producers rely on commercial inoculant products to provide the correct rhizobia and sufficient quantity of rhizobia to their seed whilst sowing.

The MALDI-ID method uses a mass spectrometry machine and genetic sequencing of protein markers to detect and identify the different strains and their unique fingerprints.

Dr De Meyer will use her scholarship money to visit major inoculant manufacturing companies and laboratories in South America, the USA and Canada.

Posted on:

9 Aug 2018

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