New synthetic polymers could lead to better crop yields for farmers

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Scientists at the University of Birmingham have invented a new method to encourage bacteria to form growth-promoting ecosystems that could be used to coat the roots of plant seedlings, which should result in stronger, healthier plants and higher crop yields in agriculture.

In nature, the roots of seedlings form mutually beneficial relationships with communities of microbes (fungi, bacteria, viruses) in the soil and exchange nutrients, allowing both the plant and the microbes to thrive. This is especially critical in the early stages of a plant’s life when the seedling is in a race against time to achieve self-sustaining growth before the seed’s nutrients and energy reserves are depleted.

Dr. Tim Overton, an applied microbiologist from the University’s School of Chemical Engineering, and Dr. Francisco Fernandez-Trillo from the School of Chemistry led a team to develop new synthetic polymers that stimulate the formation of these bacterial communities in a way that mirrors a natural process known as biofilm formation.

A biofilm is a finely orchestrated community of microbes supported by a matrix of biological polymers that forms a protective microenvironment and holds the community together.

The researchers worked together on a four-year project on how polymers interact with bacteria, which resulted in the synthesis of a group of acylhydrazone-based polymers.

These novel polymers were designed to act as an adhesive scaffold, “seeding” the formation of a microorganism-polymer complex to initiate and accelerate biofilm formation. Once the biofilm is formed, the bacteria become a self-sufficient and self-organizing community, and produce their own matrix to allow the transmission of nutrients and water, and the evacuation of wastes.

The project involved a Ph.D. students Pavan Adoni and Omar Huneidi, who went on to advance research showing that polymers aggregate bacteria and enhance biofilm formation. Critically, they also showed that the process is fully reversible and that biofilm can be dispersed by changing environmental conditions. The results of these experiments and other studies will be published in 2022.

Pavan Adoni commented: “We anticipate that the polymer will eventually be used as a seed coating, perhaps in conjunction with bacteria such as B. Subtilis, which is naturally present in soil, increases plant stress tolerance and is currently used as a soil inoculant. We envision a more targeted approach that only treats the seed, so that when it germinates, the bacteria are ready to grow in the safe environment provided by a polymer complex of microorganisms. Ultimately, this should result in stronger plants that grow faster. , and have greater resistance to disease.”

The University of Birmingham Enterprise has filed a broad patent application covering the novel polymers, the method of biofilm formation and the method of polymer cleavage, and its use to promote biofilm growth with any microorganism, including including those who can produce or deliver chemicals. or biological molecules.

The patent has now been licensed to life sciences company PBL Technology, which invests in, protects and promotes emerging innovations from public research sources around the world. In agriculture, PBL’s technologies include crop genetics, crop treatments, precision agriculture, and R&D promoters and tools.

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Provided by University of Birmingham

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