• The focus in present-day biological research is increasingly on exploring new means of boosting crop yields from the available farmland
• Results suggest that Poncho™ / VOTiVO™ improves primary root performance
• Bayer researchers are screening bacteria collections to search for new biologicals to use in foliar sprays and seed treatments for crop protection and crop enhancement
Dr. Magalie Guilhabert (left) with colleagues from Crop Strategy in one of the greenhouses at the Bayer facility in West Sacramento.
Plant specialists at Bayer use the term “crop efficiency” to describe all the different areas they are working in to systematically optimize the yield potential of crops through research in technologies such as breeding, traits, chemistry, and biologicals. Raphael Dumain, Global Head of Crop Efficiency at Bayer, explains their goal: “We want to strengthen plants from the inside out so that they can successfully cope not only with pests and diseases, but also with unfavorable environmental conditions, such as stress and nutrient-poor soils.” Building on past successes in biological seed treatment to control pests and diseases, the focus in present-day biological research is increasingly on exploring new means of boosting crop yields from the available farmland – to help feed a growing global population.
Key role of roots in plant health
Experts throughout the crop protection industry see the key to boosting crop yields in root and soil health – and how the two interact. Ensuring a crop’s root system is effectively protected in the early stages of a plant’s life can make a big difference at harvest time, as roots are the interface between plants and the soil. Four key functions are dependent on healthy roots: establishing the plant in the soil; systemically supplying the plant with water and nutrients; and storing ‘food’. The importance of root health is shown by the fact that over 50 % of daily photosynthate is used below ground!
Dr. Amy Burton, a root physiologist at Bayer, points out that yield building starts at germination. So Bayer scientists are focusing on plant health from the start of the cropping season. Helping plants become more efficient with carbon, for example, enables roots to be more efficient in accessing water and nutrients. Carbon savings inside the root can be used to grow new roots into unexplored areas of the soil. As Amy’s colleague Dr. Varghese points out, “Our research is aimed at understanding roots better and enhancing root system efficiency through biologicals.” Experiments performed by Amy and Varghese reveal crucial differences in primary and crown root structure between a control treatment group and one that was seed-treated with Poncho / VOTiVO. The focus is on carbon use, soil exploration, and water uptake efficiency. Results have shown that Poncho / VOTiVO modifies the anatomy of primary roots in the seedling, as well as the anatomy of crown roots in more mature corn plants. These anatomical changes have the potential to improve carbon efficiency and soil exploration in seedlings, and water uptake during drought in older plants. Such changes to the structure of the root system may in part explain performance improvements observed with Poncho / VOTiVO.
Left: Thick, short crown roots; poor branching and soil exploration; poor performance under drought conditions. Right: Thick, long, or thin / branched embryonic roots; potential for later soil exploration; better performance under drought conditions.
Photo credit: “Amy Burton / Penn State Roots Lab”
Bayer scientists are also exploiting the symbiotic relationships between plants and microbes to optimize not just nutrient uptake but also a crop’s genetic potential to boost grain numbers and yield. Inserting these beneficial microorganisms into a seed treatment is a unique challenge. “The interactions between microbes and plants are often much more complex than we think,” says Dr. Magalie Guilhabert, Head of Crop Efficiency for Biologics Research at the Bayer facility in West Sacramento, California.
“As a result, the positive effects from laboratory tests cannot always be simply transferred to large-scale field studies.” Her team is employing sophisticated genetic, physiological, analytical, and bio-statistical tools, as well as state-of-the-art modeling and machine-learning techniques to better understand the processes in beneficial microorganisms and their interactions with crop plants. “In our greenhouses, we are screening microbes in novel ways to learn about how microbes grow and form an intimate relationship with a plant – in order to find the best leads,” Magalie adds.
Bayer’s ability to discover valuable new genes from bacteria has been greatly increased by recent advances in automation and bio-informatics that have given scientists the means to handle a great number of bacterial strains and learn more about their functionality through their genetic codes. With some 116,000 bacterial strains and, on average, 5,000 genes per organism, Bayer scientists have a vast library of over half a billion genes to choose from. In 2015, work began on sequencing the genomes of the entire collection and, early in 2017, a robot began automatically storing, removing, and preparing the microbe samples for testing – tasks previously done manually. Instead of scientists preparing 1,500 strains a week by hand, the robot manages 1,700 strains a day! The return on this considerable investment will be a huge increase in the speed at which innovations emerge.
Improving plant resilience
Bayer researchers are using this bacteria collection to search for new biologicals to use in foliar sprays and seed treatments for crop protection and crop enhancement. The Poncho / VOTiVO seed treatment is a good example, given the dual protection it provides for soybean, corn, and cotton seeds. VOTiVO, which is based on the unique bacteria strain Bacillus firmus, grows and multiplies on the root surface, creating a living biofilm-barrier that protects the root from nematode damage. Poncho is a chemical insecticide that is absorbed by the roots to control many early-season insect pests. As Jennifer Riggs, the US Bayer SeedGrowth™ product development manager, points out, when Poncho / VOTiVO is applied to corn and soybeans, the average yield can be significantly increased.
Significant investment in strategic technology
Besides state-of-the-art research facilities and access to a variety of relevant technologies (microbials such as bacteria and fungi, inoculants, and natural compounds like plant extracts), Bayer is also partnering with other research institutions and biological companies to move this technology forward and further optimize the factors that drive microbial performance. “Biologicals are a strategic technology for Bayer,” says Dr. Magalie Guilhabert. “Our company will use it to further develop our portfolio of Customized Agronomic Solutions, of which biological crop protection products are an integral part.”