Microbiome: A growing term that could improve agriculture

Sampling switchgrass near Elora to study the microbiome (photo courtesy of Kari Dunfield).

Right before the New Year, RealAgriculture asked a few contributors to predict what the agriculture community should keep an eye on in 2018.

The field is crowded. So I picked issues I’d written about: a veterinary shortage, as well as mental health issues. Both were percolating through 2017 or before. Hopefully, this is the year advances are made in mental health program development for producers, as well as measures to address the sudden veterinary shortage that is rippling across the entire continent.

Reflections on 2017 and forecasts for the new year

And there’s something else to put on the radar screen this year: an advanced understanding of agricultural microbiomes.

Microbiomes are microscopic organisms. In the most successful ecosystems, communities of microbiomes get along, support each other and — ideally — make each other better. What’s called symbiosis is at play – that is, close, long-term interaction between organisms in an environment.

Thanks to advanced technology, researchers are now able to better understand the precise genes belonging to a community’s microbes. And as a result of that understanding, microbial relationships can be enhanced.

Soil is one of the most dynamic ecosystems in existence. That makes it ideal ground for enhancing microbiome activity and applications, such as microbial inoculants. Inoculants can boost productivity appreciably.

Now, as we reach for new heights in precision agriculture, microbiome research is a key target. That’s why it warrants attention, as well as a better broad understanding by producers and non-producers alike.

Researchers are geared up for this drive. According to one estimate, 80 researchers at 15 Canadian universities are already involved in some aspect of agricultural microbiome research.

They need to come together. Elsewhere — Europe, for example, as well as the United States — researchers have joined forces to unite isolated microbiome studies.

Now, it’s time for Canada to do the same.

It’s a logical and effective approach. We’ve seen exceptional results when commodities and other sectors such as wildlife disease surveillance take a united approach to research. And while a microbiome isn’t a commodity per se, the approach is the same: use resources as efficiently as possible, especially when so much is at stake.

“Microbiome research has the potential to make Canadian agri-food more competitive through the development of value-added products, and produce safe food for global markets,” says professor David Ma. (Photo by Alaina)

University of Guelph nutritional science professor David Ma is one of the scientists leading the charge for a national microbiome research network. When isolated research centres or clusters are drawn together through this network, they can take advantage of each others’ knowledge to try to improve their respective commodity, and work together more efficiently for new advances.

He says producers’ management practices to preserve soil health by enhancing microbial diversity is one example of how a beefed-up microbiome can aid crop production. Another is identifying potential bacteria and fungi to enhance crop root systems, for better yield, or drought resistance. And finally, enhancing the protein quality in plants is another timely example, as some consumers move towards more plant-based diets.

“Microbiome research has the potential to make Canadian agri-food more competitive through the development of value-added products, and produce safe food for global markets,” he says. “In Canada, microbiome research across different disciplines — soil, water, crops, livestock, food safety and nutrition — is at various stages of advancement. But it’s poised to deliver immediate economic benefits.”

It’s not only crops that can benefit from researchers’ enhanced understanding of microbiomes.

In food animal production, microbiome-derived probiotics have the potential to enhance growth, digestion and immunity. At Guelph, huge strides have been made understanding how to work with the human gut and beneficial bacteria to fight disease and cut antibiotic use. So many of these findings may have parallel applications in livestock, if researchers can find the ways and means to work on them together.

“Agri-food research needs to make soil, plants and animals more productive and disease resistant, without compromising plant and animal health, animal welfare or environmental sustainability,” says Ma. “By better understanding the microbiome, Canada can be the leader in addressing these needs with scientific solutions that could really help advance the agri-food sector.”

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