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The green frontier of biotechnology?

When we think about ‘biotechnology’, our minds often wander towards sterile, clinical settings where scientists are conducting their magic to cure diseases. However, ‘biotechnology’ covers a lot more than only pharmaceutical applications. For instance, agro-biotechnology, one ‘green’ branch of biotechnology, studies the complex, microscopic processes that keep plant cells - and thus our primary food source - alive.

Within the umbrella of agro-biotechnology, let's zoom in on the small - but important - world of plant microbiomes. Microorganisms such as fungi, bacteria, and viruses are present everywhere: they are inside your body, in the air you breathe, in the soil and on and in the plants we eat. And that is a good thing!

Many of these microorganisms have a positive and even essential influence on their environment - be it the soil, a plant or you. Unfortunately, a minority of the microorganisms can also cause disease - to us or to our crops. Both these positive and negative effects are an excellent reason to study this microscopic world.

Plant microbiomes affect plant health and growth

There are multiple places where microorganisms interact with plants: inside the plant, on its surface or in the soil immediately adjacent to the roots (the rhizosphere). Especially in and close to the root, microbial communities affect the plant in similar ways to how the gut microbiome impacts humans: influencing nutrient uptake, growth and disease resistance (Trevedi et al., 2021).


These can be direct influences on plant growth and health, such as facilitation of nutrient uptake, modulation of plant hormones, and mitigation of stress. Indirectly, antagonism with plant pathogens through antibiotic production or niche competition can also promote disease suppression (Trevedi et al., 2021).

Microorganisms are attracted to the rhizosphere by root exudates: organic compounds that are deposited in the soil. Through coevolution, plants and microbial communities have transformed into complex systems with synergistic and antagonistic effects. For example, similar enzymes for breaking down plant carbohydrates are produced by both plant-associated bacteria and fungi, even though there is a huge evolutionary distance between these organisms! Even more incredible is the discovery of proteins and regulatory molecules in bacteria that seem to have no function in the bacterium itself, but that have functions in their host plants (Levy et al., 2018; Ren et al., 2019). These findings illustrate the close connection between the plant and its microbiome.

Making the most of the microbiome: Research domain applications

Basic research. Understanding the complex interactions between plants and pathogenic or beneficial microorganisms brings valuable insights into the plant immune system, cross-kingdom interactions and ecological networks. Understanding the basic principles is the first step towards a targeted approach to improve plant health and growth. Or on a more idealistic note: unveiling the mysteries of biology shows us how beautifully complex ‘life’ is. There is great value in knowledge!

Sustainable agriculture. With a growing human population, the need for food grows as well, while considering the impact on the climate is more important than ever. Modulating microbiomes to improve plant growth or increase resistance to threats like insects or plant pathogens is an additional strategy to achieve sustainable agriculture, as it doesn't require chemical pesticides that could leak into the environment. Approaches to achieve this include the engineering of both microbiomes and plants to optimally exploit the beneficial effects of the plant microbiome, and good management to maintain or optimize the soil microbial community. An extensive overview of possible strategies can be found in Trevedi et al. (2021).

Food production. Apart from microorganisms that cause disease, there are also many microorganisms responsible for spoiling our food. Over a third of all the food that is produced is wasted, partly due to spoilage on the field, during storage, during transport, or at home. Tailoring the plant microbiome could provide an extra tool to suppress the growth of damaging microorganisms.

Human health. We can also consider the impact of plant microbiomes on our own health. Plant microbiomes affect the quality of our food and might even interact with our own gut microbiomes (Singh et al., 2020, Trevedi et al., 2021)! In the future, we might eat fruits and vegetables with microbiomes tailored towards improving our own health.

Are you looking for an expert bioinformatics and biostatistics partner that deeply understands agro-biotechnology? BioLizard is ready to support you! 

We have proven expertise in microbiome analysis, including causal inference, and have even built a user-friendly tool for interactive exploration and querying of microbiome data - no data science expertise needed. We understand statistics - but we speak the language of microbiology. 

Reach out to BioLizard today to start discussing how we can help you
extract new insights from your plant microbiome data.

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