Harnessing soil microbiomes may be the key to meeting global food demands and revitalizing soil health. However, new tools are needed to understand and unlock their potential.
Meeting the food and energy demands of the world’s growing population will require more-efficient and sustainable agricultural practices. As soil quality degrades, pests become more resilient, and climate change progresses, this undertaking is becoming even more daunting.
The U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) has been investing in research to maximize the growth of bioenergy stocks in marginal soils — areas of land unsuitable for most food crops. These efforts could not only produce more-sustainable bioenergy sources, but by transferring atmospheric carbon dioxide into the soil, they could also improve the fertility of these lands.
Whether for bioenergy or food crops, sustainable agriculture practices will need to maximize beneficial microorganisms. This abundant and ubiquitous cadre of organisms has the potential to improve plant yields and quality, as well as dramatically impact the fate of much of the plant-derived carbon released into soils. However, soils are complex, heterogeneous environments that contain diverse microbial communities that are poorly understood. A particular challenge is understanding the interactions between microbes within communities.
EcoFAB (Ecosystem Fabrication) is a technology being developed to improve our ability to understand, manipulate, and design microbiomes by bridging the gap between laboratory single-organism studies and large-scale experiments in the field. These single-plant-scale devices facilitate the reproducible study of plant-microbial-environmental interactions under defined conditions to enable interlaboratory studies directed toward understanding these complex, dynamic systems.
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