The new polymer can lead to better crops

Researchers at the University of Birmingham have invented a new method to encourage bacteria to form growth-promoting ecosystems that can be used to cover the roots of plant seedlings, which is expected to lead to stronger, healthier plants and more high 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 important in the early stages of plant life, when the seedlings are in a race against time to achieve self-sufficient growth before the nutrients and energy reserves in the seeds run out.

Dr. Tim Overton, an applied microbiologist at the University School of Chemical Engineering, and Dr. Francisco Fernandez-Trilo of the School of Chemistry lead a team to develop new synthetic polymers that stimulate the formation of these bacterial communities in a way that reflects natural a process known as biofilm formation.

Biofilm is a finely organized community of microbes, supported by a matrix of biological polymers that forms a protective microenvironment and holds the community together.

The researchers are working together on a four-year project on how polymers interact with bacteria, which led to the synthesis of a group of polymers based on acylhydrazone.

These new polymers are 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 that allows the transfer of nutrients and water and the disposal of waste products.

The project is funded by the Research Council for Biotechnology and Life Sciences (BBSRC) through their partnership for integrative learning in the life sciences in the Midlands.

It involves PhD students Pavan Adoni and Omar Hunaidi, who later advanced in research showing that polymers aggregate bacteria and improve biofilm formation. Critically, they also showed that the process is completely reversible and the biofilm can be dispersed by changing environmental conditions. The results of these experiments and additional studies will be published in 2022.

Pavan Adoni commented: “We expect that the polymer will eventually be used as a seed coating, perhaps together with bacteria such as B. subtilis, which is naturally present in the soil, increases the resistance to plant stress and is currently used as a soil inoculant. . We envisage a more targeted approach that treats only the seeds, so that when they germinate, the bacteria are ready to grow in the safe environment provided by the polymer complex of microorganisms. Ultimately, this should lead to stronger plants that grow faster and are more resistant to disease. ”

The University of Birmingham Enterprise has filed a comprehensive patent application covering new polymers, the biofilm formation method and the polymer cleavage method, and its use to promote biofilm growth with any microorganism, including those that can produce or supply chemical or biological molecules.

The patent is already licensed to PBL Technology, a specialized life science company that invests in, protects and promotes emerging innovations from public research sources around the world. In agriculture, PBL’s technologies include crop genetics, crop treatment, precision farming and promoters and research and development tools.

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