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Study finds plants need active social lives to stay healthy

Canadian plant science researchers in collaboration with Montreal-based Inocucor Technologies Inc. have discovered new clues about the active social lives of plants, which use molecular signals to engage in constant life-enhancing conversations with thousands of microbes in their ecosystem.

Their findings, reviewed in Frontiers in Plant Science (“Signaling in the phytomicrobiome: breadth and potential,” Sept. 2015), promise to help plant scientists and agriculture bioscience companies develop better approaches to growth promotion and disease prevention for field crops. The phyto-microbiome includes the microorganisms found in plants and in the soil immediately surrounding them.

“The phyto-microbiome is like a crowded party. You hear a din of conversation, but it is difficult to make out what any one person is saying,” said the study’s author and lead researcher, Dr. Donald L. Smith, chair of Inocucor’s Scientific Advisory Board and a plant science professor at McGill University.

“We now understand that a plant growing in the field is an ecosystem that relies on harmonious connections with its microbial community to thrive, especially when threatened by drought or other extreme weather conditions,” said Smith. “This new knowledge will help us develop effective, low-cost, eco-friendly crop inputs that reduce fossil-fuel-intense inputs on farms.”

These insights will also guide scientists on how to use beneficial microbes to improve the ability of plants to adapt to various soil and climatic conditions, leading to enhanced crop yields, said Smith.

Microbes in the soil, on the root surface and in the cells between the roots release “signaling compounds” to communicate with each other and the plant they live with, in a “collective effort to survive,” he said. “The microbes that live in direct proximity with plants are in a privileged position because they thrive and survive along with the organism, making food out of light and carbon-dioxide.”

Smith said these plant-microbial relationships started about 400 million years ago and have become more sophisticated and complex through time.

He and his research team worked with microbial consortia produced by Inocucor for the ongoing study. The research has been funded through Mitacs, a nonprofit national research organization that manages and funds research and training programs in partnership with universities, industry and government in Canada.

“Darwin taught that evolution is persistent and relentless, and is not solely driven by genetics. The influence of a living organism’s interaction with the environment is key,” said the study’s co-author, Dr. Margaret Bywater- Ekegärd, co-founder and executive vice president of technology and innovation at Inocucor. “Our work depends on understanding the complex nature of the phyto-microbiome and how messaging occurs between its microorganisms under changing conditions to help plants thrive in the field.”

Inocucor product components are tested under stress conditions to ensure persistence and competence when delivered in the field.

An abstract of the peer-reviewed article, “Signaling in the phytomicrobiome: breadth and potential,” can be viewed at

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