New triple symbiosis research promises nitrogen fixing grasses and pine trees

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Oct, 2017

A new Lincoln Agritech research programme will find revolutionary ways of using naturally-occurring bacteria and fungi to produce nitrogen fixing trees and grasses, and to produce stress tolerant plants. A second research programme will work toward naturally removing off flavours in wine.

Lincoln Agritech’s Biotechnology Team Manager Dr Richard Weld, who is leading the research, says “the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has awarded the programmes a combined $8.2m.”
“This is a notable achievement for a small organisation.”

The first of the two projects will benefit the forestry and pastoral sectors by allowing pine trees and grasses to fix nitrogen (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 (fungal endophytes); creating fungal-bacterial hybrid endophytes.

“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 to fix and take up nitrogen.”
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 that have two unique features: they are naturally magnetic and they have an unusual sulphur metabolism that allows them to derive energy from hydrogen sulphide. Thus, they can be controlled using magnetic fields and used to remove hydrogen sulphide from wine.

“Hydrogen sulphide can be responsible for off-flavours in wine,” says Dr Weld.

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’s CEO Peter Barrowclough says that “The recent MBIE success is a great opportunity to build on our 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 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, Timberlands.

New triple symbiosis research promises nitrogen fixing grasses and pine trees