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Studying interconnected communities of plants and microbes in agriculture

The environment affects the soil, which affects the microbes and insects that live there, which affect the crops and livestock.

A professor of plant pathology and microbiology, Gwyn Beattie said “There are communities of microbes in the insects on the plants, and they can all interact with one another in various ways.”

She said that, understanding those networks of interactions can unlock a vast range of benefits for producers and consumers the world over. Everything from better yields to stronger resilience to environmental stress could arise from farm practices that embrace this intricate web of relationships and it’ll require a shift in how humans approach agriculture.

Beattie helped launch the Phytobiomes Roadmap, an effort initiated by the American Phytopathological Society and supported by over 20 scientific societies, companies, institutes and government agencies. The aim of roadmap is to enhance global sustainable food, feed and fibre production to meet the doubling of global demand by 2050.

Beattie said “This is a plan to transition agriculture from a focus on individual components to looking at it as a system in which the components influence each other.”

Now scientists can identify and sequence the microbes in a soil sample, and farmers can utilize precision technology that allows them to track, store and use production data like never before. As knowledge of phytobiomes grows, farmers can tailor their practices to get the most out of those relationships.

She also said that, for instance, it may be possible to breed crops with genes intended to favour microbes that improve yields or stress tolerance.


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