To safely use bacteria in agriculture to help fertilize crops, it is vital to understand the difference between harmful and healthy strains. The bacterial genus Burkholderia, for example, includes dangerous disease-causing pathogens one species has even been listed as a potential bioterrorist agent but also many species that are safe and important for plant development.
Can the microbial good and evil be told apart? Yes, UCLA life scientists and an international team of researchers report Jan. 8 in the online journal PLOS ONE.
"We have shown that a certain group of Burkholderia, which have just been discovered in the last 12 years as plant-growth promoting bacteria, are not pathogenic," said the study's senior author, Ann Hirsch, a professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science. "This opens up the possibility of using these particular species for promoting plant growth through the process of nitrogen fixation, particularly in areas of climate change. This will have a major impact, especially on people in the developing world in producing protein-rich crops."
Nitrogen fixation is a process by which helpful bacteria that have entered the roots of plants convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into ammonia, which helps the plants thrive. The findings of Hirsch and her colleagues indicate that several recently discovered Burkholderia species, including Burkholderia tuberum, could be used cautiously in nitrogen fixing. These species, the scientists discovered, lack those genes that make other Burkholderia species harmful agents of infection.
"Bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, such as Burkholderia, are critical for plant growth," said Hirsch, whose laboratory studies many aspects of the complex symbiosis between plants and bacteria. "We're especially interested in these recently described Burkholderi
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University of California - Los Angeles