Friendly bugs boost Australia’s grain output

chris-franco2The search for bugs that will improve the quality and quantity of Australia’s grain production in an environmentally friendly way is being led by Flinders University.

The four-year Beneficial Microbes Program also involves the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), CSIRO Entomology and Murdoch University, and has $1.8 million in funding from the Australian Grains Research and Development Corporation.

Chief Investigator and Head of Medical Biotechnology at Flinders, Professor Chris Franco said the program aims to isolate and develop bugs that are associated with plants. At Flinders the focus is on those that live in plants – endophytic actinomycetes – that both control disease and promote growth in cereal crops.

“Some of these bugs are used widely by the pharmaceutical industry in antibiotics, immunology and organ rejection drugs. We’ve found that they are also very useful in controlling fungal root diseases such as Rhizoctonia which can devastate grain crops,” Professor Franco said.

“They also help plants to establish better in the early phase of growth,” he said.

“And since the spores of these actinomycetes attach very strongly to plants, can withstand high temperatures and dry conditions and have a long shelf life, they are compatible with most farm management practices.”

Using techniques developed at Flinders, Professor Franco and his team of researchers will endeavour to isolate potentially thousands of uncommon or untested organisms in a wide variety of plants, including wheat and other cereals.

In addition to developing methods to test hundreds of organisms at a time, SARDI and CSIRO will screen the isolated organisms for their potential in combating disease and promoting growth with a view to glasshouse and field trials.

Murdoch University will focus on isolating organisms that facilitate the acquisition of nutrients, such as phosphate and nitrogen, and which aid beneficial microbes already used on farm, such as rhizobia.

Professor Franco said the ultimate aim was to get a small number of microbes that can be taken up for commercial development.

“Up to 10 per cent of grain yields are lost to fungal root disease. These bugs offer an all-natural, sustainable and environmentally friendly way of controlling disease, reducing the need for fossil-derived pesticides and promoting plant growth at the same time.”

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