For the past several years, probiotics (aka good bacteria) have been all the rage in the health food industry. Yogurt, sauerkraut, dark chocolate and pickles — these are all foods that contain beneficial probiotics, which aid in digestive health and have other benefits.

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While the positive influences of probiotics have mostly been focused on the food we eat, there’s a whole other opportunity that scientists and researchers are learning about. It has to do with plants, and the rewards could be huge.

Why trees are the answer

Sharon Doty is a professor and researcher with the College of the Environment at the University of Washington. She’s been studying probiotics in plants for the past 15 years. More specifically, her focus has been on the beneficial microorganisms that live in trees.

“I’ve been surprised by the amazing diversity of microbes within trees,” Doty says. “And I’ve also been surprised by the broad range of plant species that can benefit from the microbes from wild plants in their native habitats.”

Doty and her team studied this firsthand by isolating endophytes (bacteria or fungus that live in plants) from poplar and willow trees. Even though these trees don’t have root nodules, the team found beneficial endophytes throughout the plant. Why does that matter? Because many people have wrongly assumed that beneficial plant bacteria can only come from root nodules. Then the researchers applied what they collected to rice plants.

Reduce chemical use

Their theory was if they used beneficial bacteria on these plants that they could use less chemical fertilizer. And it worked! The plants grew bigger and better with more developed root systems without having to use all the chemicals traditionally used to grow plants. It was a major environmental win for the team.

“If we could reduce our dependency on chemical fertilizer, there is potential to greatly help the environment,” Doty says. “We have found that the microbes from the wild plants help the plants not only with nutrients, but they increase growth and tolerance to stresses including drought.”

This isn’t the first time Doty has told people about the benefits of these microbes. A few years ago, she published research that showed the same microbes promoted the growth of peppers, tomatoes and grasses.

tomato plants on vineEarlier research showed that microbes helped tomatoes, peppers and grasses grow. (Photo: Dwight Sipler/flickr)
Future of food crops

Niki Jabbour is a horticulturist and the author of “Groundbreaking Food Gardens.” She’s excited at what this discovery could potentially mean for future food crops.

“I'm familiar with root nodules found in crops like legumes — I see them every time I clean out a spent crop of peas or beans — but I didn't know that beneficial endophytes could also live in plant tissue,” Jabbour says. “This discovery demonstrates that there are still so many things we don't understand about plants.”

The potential impact this could have globally is huge, especially when you think about applying it to other food crops. “If this offers improved yields over nitrogen-fertilized crops, it will have a significant impact on soil and environmental health,” Jabbour says. “Supporting research like this is essential if we hope to increase food security and reduce pollution.”

This is exactly what Doty wants. Funding for this kind of research has historically been scarce, so she’s hoping this new research released by her team will help create future opportunities. “With funding, we could determine exactly which microbes are doing the most good in the wild plants.”

A special thanks to Professor Doty for helping us break down this complex and fascinating subject. To learn more about her and her team’s work, visit her website.