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Microbial Approach to Better Crops

By examining the microbial community living near the roots of rice plants, the University of Delaware's Harsh Bais is searching for bacteria that may prevent or limit the amount of arsenic, a soil contaminant common in India and other parts of Asia, the plants take up, the New York Times reports.

Bais, the Times says, has homed in on one species — Pantoea agglomerans — that appears to limit the amount of arsenic in the plant stem to one-eighth its usual level.

"Research on the plant microbiome is very hot because everyone is trying to find things that can increase growth and yield," Bais adds.

Others are exploring the use of certain bacteria as plant probiotics to encourage a better fruit yield, limit the need of fertilizer, and withstand disease and pests. And Venkatesan Sundaresan's lab at the University of California, Davis, is undertaking a survey of the rice microbiome and is working with Bais by providing soil samples for isolation of its component microbes for testing.

However, the Times notes that though P. agglomerans appears to keep arsenic out of the plant stem, how it affects the rice grain and whether it could compete and survive in the presence of other soil microbes isn't yet known, though the researchers hope to find out soon.