Bacteria can replace chemical fertilizer to protect the natural environment
July 24, 2019
By André Julião | Agência FAPESP – Researchers affiliated with the National Biorenewables Laboratory (LNBR) at Brazil’s National Energy and Materials Research Center (CNPEM) in Campinas, São Paulo State, are studying bacteria that promote plant growth. The microorganisms are isolated from soil and could potentially be used as fertilizers without causing water pollution or harmful soil alterations, as chemical fertilizers do.
The principal investigator for the project is Juliana Velasco, a researcher at LNBR-CNPEM. She presented some of her team’s findings on June 26, 2019, during a Workshop on Biopharma and Metabolomics at FAPESP in São Paulo City. The project is funded under a cooperation agreement between FAPESP and Agilent Technologies.
After isolating soil bacteria that promote plant growth, Velasco’s team began identifying the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) produced by these bacteria. Bacterial VOCs are considered important drivers of plant growth and health. “Our aim now is to understand how the plant’s metabolism is changed by these signaling molecules,” Velasco told Agência FAPESP.
In the first phase of their research, they used the species Arabidopsis thaliana, a member of the mustard (Brassicaceae) family, and Setaria viridis, a foxtail grass. Both are widely used as model organisms in plant biology. They selected the bacterial strains that contributed most to plant growth and are now conducting laboratory tests with these strains to investigate their effects on rice.
“It’s likely that chemical fertilizers can’t be completely replaced, but without doubt we can considerably reduce their use when we opt for biological products,” Velasco said.
The goal is to develop a bioproduct that can be applied in solid form, as a powder, or in liquid form to the soil in plantations of key crops such as rice, corn and sugarcane. Similar technologies are already used to fix nitrogen in the soil.
Velasco explained that many soybean growers in Brazil use bacterial products as substitutes for chemical nitrogen fertilizer. Excessive use of this type of fertilizer is known to cause soil and water contamination, as well as increasing emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a powerful greenhouse gas and tropospheric ozone destroyer.
FAPESP and Agilent Technologies have issued three joint calls for proposals, selecting and funding six research projects as a result.
“This partnership has created very interesting opportunities for researchers affiliated with universities and research institutions in São Paulo State,” Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s Scientific Director, said in his address to the event.
According to Jim Hollenhorst, Agilent’s Senior Director of Technology, the company invests about 8% of its sales revenue in research and development (R&D). Most of this investment is spent in house, on what it calls organic R&D.
“Some of our research labs focus on long-term innovation, which is riskier but offers the prospect of high returns. We don’t think all good ideas come from within our company. That’s the main reason we’re engaging in partnerships like this one, here and around the world,” Hollenhorst said, adding that Brazil has significant potential for additional partnerships with his company.
Another project supported by FAPESP and Agilent was presented by Gabriela Venturini, a postdoctoral intern with a scholarship from FAPESP at the Heart Institute (INCOR) of Hospital das Clínicas, the general hospital attached to the University of São Paulo’s Medical School (FM-USP). Venturini’s research interests include metabolomics. In this case, she is investigating the metabolites produced by the bodies of patients with heart failure.
A deeper understanding of heart failure is also the aim of research led by Alexandre da Costa Pereira, a professor at FM-USP. Pereira is the principal investigator for both Venturini’s project and a study that similarly focuses on the investigation of alterations to metabolic pathways in heart failure and is also funded by the FAPESP-Agilent partnership.
“We know cardiovascular diseases have several causes, particularly genetic ones, but the relationship between genetic alterations and the development of these disorders isn’t fully understood,” Venturini said.
In pursuit of this understanding, the project is integrating metabolomics with the functional and molecular analysis of proteins, RNA and other data collected from blood samples donated by volunteers and from cell models. The focus is on the mechanism underlying heart failure as the final stage of various cardiovascular diseases, such as systemic arterial hypertension (high blood pressure), myocardial infarction (heart attack) and Chagas disease.
“Metabolites reflect not just genetic but also environmental alterations – changes in the patient’s diet, the air they breathe, the medications they take,” Venturini said. “Despite progress in research focusing on genes or proteins, we still can’t completely explain how each process leads to heart failure.”
For Venturini, a proper understanding of each specific problem can lead to more effective treatment and even prevention.
“At present, we aim to prevent heart failure by averting disorders that occur before it develops, such as heart attack or high blood pressure,” she said. “However, once a person has developed heart failure there isn’t much we can do. Despite so many studies, the number of cases has steadily increased. So we’re seriously failing to treat it.”
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