Research to use bacteria in revolutionary ways

The Lincoln Agritech Biotechnology Group (from left to right): Dr Richard Weld, Dr Johanna Steyaert, international intern Camille Vagner, Nicholas Glithero, PhD student Thomas Flinois and Simon Lee.

World-leading research from Lincoln Agritech could potentially help the pastoral sector reduce nitrate leaching. Scientists at the independent, multi-disciplinary research and development company owned by Lincoln University have just received funding for work with the natural microbes around grasses and pine-trees. They’re looking to find revolutionary ways of using naturally-occurring bacteria and fungi to increase the availability of nitrogen to plants and improve plants’ tolerance to stress.

Biotechnology team manager Dr Richard Weld, who is leading the research, says the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has awarded two programmes – the nitrogen project and another programme looking at naturally removing ‘off’ flavours in wine – a combined $8.2 million.

“This is a notable achievement for a small organisation,” he says.

The project will benefit the forestry and pastoral sectors by allowing pine trees and grasses to convert atmospheric nitrogen into plant-available mineral nitrogen in the same way that legumes such as clover do, and by improving the plants’ tolerance to stress.

Dr Weld says this can be achieved by optimising the natural microbial communities associated with the plants, thereby creating new symbioses between plants, bacteria and fungi.

“We will select bacteria that fix nitrogen and that enhance plant tolerance to stress,” says Dr Weld. “These bacteria will then be combined in symbiotic association with two fungi which naturally live within plants.

“After this, the fungal-bacterial hybrids can be introduced to pine trees and perennial ryegrass. The combination will make the plants more resistant to stress and more able take up nitrogen.”

He expects that the new hybrids will reduce nitrate leaching, “as the fixed nitrogen will be produced continuously in small amounts and directly available to the plant.”

Dr Weld says the five-year programme is world-leading, as no other researchers have attempted a triple symbiosis between fungi, bacteria and these plants.

The research team from Lincoln Agritech, Lincoln University, Scion and AgResearch includes scientists who have been instrumental in developing fungal biocontrol endophytes.

The team will work with commercial companies which are already producing and licensing fungal endophytes. The new fungal-bacterial hybrids will be added to their product lines.

The second research programme involves using bacteria with two unique features – they are naturally magnetic and have an unusual sulphur metabolism that allows them to derive energy from hydrogen sulphide. This means they can be controlled using magnetic fields and used to remove hydrogen sulphide from wine, which can be responsible for ‘off’ flavours.

Dr Weld says the research will use the wine industry as an exemplar, but the technology can benefit other industries where hydrogen sulphide is also an issue.

The programme involves researchers from Lincoln Agritech, Plant and Food Research, Aix-Marseille University, France and will take place over a two-year period.

Lincoln Agritech chief executive Peter Barrowclough says the recent MBIE success is a great opportunity to build on the company’s existing Biotechnology expertise, to collaborate with research partners and industry, and improve outcomes for the primary sector.

“Our job is to do the over-the-horizon science to keep our primary industries competitive.  We are very grateful to MBIE for supporting these research programmes, and we are looking forward to helping the wine, pastoral and forestry sectors keep their competitive edge on the world stage.”

Industry participants in the project include Agrimm Technologies Ltd, Agriseeds Ltd, ArborGen Inc, Grasslanz Technology Ltd, Indevin NZ, KonoNZ, Lake Taupo Forest Management Ltd, NZ Forestry Owners Association, NZ Wingrowers, PGG Wrightson Seeds, Rayonier Matariki, and Timberlands.

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