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New NC State consortium to study microbes at the root-soil interface

As North Carolina State University advances in its quest to make the Research Triangle a global hub for plant-related innovation, it recently launched a unique consortium to explore the soil microbiome — the largely unknown world of microscopic organisms living in soil along plant roots.

The new partnership, known as the Plant Soil Microbial Community Consortium (PSMCC), brings the university’s Center for Integrated Fungal Research (CIFR) together with stakeholders from industries and organizations vested in improving agricultural production.

The consortium’s goal is to identify biological indicators of soil health and to determine how to use naturally occurring beneficial microorganisms to modify soil in ways that improve plant health and increase crop yields.

According to CIFR’s associate director and plant pathology professor Dr. Marc Cubeta, the NC State consortium brings CIFR’s broad knowledge and expertise in bioinformatics, climatology, fungal and evolutionary biology, ecology, mathematics, microbiology, and plant and soil sciences to better understand the interaction of soil microbial communities with plants.

While some organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, insects and nematodes can cause crop damage, the majority of microbes are neutral or even beneficial to plants. For example, mycorrhizal fungi are associated with the roots of 80 percent of all plant species and critical for providing them with nitrogen, phosphorus and water. And scientists believe these beneficial relationships between plants and microorganisms will provide clues that can lead to agricultural innovations by reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Dr. Ignazio Carbone, CIFR’s director and a plant pathology professor, said, “The goal is to help us leverage microbes to increase plant yield, suppress disease – to essentially complement what we are doing with current agricultural practices to develop new approaches that are sustainable and environmentally friendly.”

Developing such approaches begins, he said, with a greater understanding of microbial biodiversity and how it evolves in response to farming practices and stressors such as drought and insects.

Martin Pettersson, Marc Cubeta, Megan Miller
As it conducts groundbreaking research, the consortium will provide educational opportunities for students. Here, Plant Pathology Professor Dr. Marc Cubeta, center, examines fungi cultures with NC State University students Martin Pettersson (left) and Megan Miller.

“The soil is teeming with microbial life, yet relatively few studies have mapped that diversity,” he said. “It’s estimated that there are upwards of 5 million species of fungi, but we have described less than 5 percent of them. There are fungi and other microbes in nature that have applications in agriculture, can be used as biopesticides and have yet to be discovered. And our mission is to do that – to understand how the communities of soil microbes interact and how to augment these communities to improve crop vigor and yield.”

The consortium’s work will fall into an emerging multidisciplinary field coming to be known as agri-symbiotics – the study of beneficial biological interactions between plants and other organisms. This field is one ripe for industry-university collaboration, according to an economic impact study of the university’s plant sciences initiative to increase agricultural yields and profitability. Some of the world’s leading ag biosciences companies, several of which have research headquarters in the area, have expressed particular interest in the field, the study says.

Dr. Deborah Thompson, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ director of research partnerships, said the consortium will focus on precompetitive research, which is initiated early enough in the research-and-development process that collaboration benefits companies that might otherwise compete.

Dr. Thomas Schäfer, vice president at Novozymes, one of PSMCC’s founding member companies, said, “Microbes are one of the promising new tools to boost crop health and productivity while reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizer. This is a welcome proposition at a time when the world needs to move towards improved sustainability and beyond heavy-input agriculture while feeding a growing global population with less available land.”

“The scientists at PSMCC have complementary expertise to identify fungi and bacteria in the soil and to study plant-microbe interactions. Novozymes looks forward to working with NC State researchers to better understand the complex interplay between millions of microbes and their host plants,” he said. “Together with our BioAg Alliance partner, Monsanto, we expect this research will inform our development of microbial-based products to help farmers grow healthier and more resilient plants capable of withstanding drought and a range of pests.”

In addition to conducting research, the consortium will provide educational opportunities for NC State students and extend knowledge gained through research to stakeholders, the general public, farmers, regulatory agencies and the scientific community. Such “translation is an integral part of this,” Carbone said, “because at the end of the day, our goal is to address the grand challenges of agriculture. We want to leverage new technologies such as deep genome sequencing and modeling complexity within ecosystems to make significant advances in our knowledge that lead us to develop better agricultural management practices.”

The consortium actively invites membership, Thompson said. Members will benefit from university resources and have first access to consortium research, results, new initiatives and proposals, and consortium membership allows companies to leverage their research funds by pooling funds with other members to increase research productivity.

Members of the consortia will also have an opportunity to provide critical input in developing new research initiatives. When research developments are made, members benefit from first access to intellectual property. Members also can interact closely with the faculty, students, technicians and post-doctoral researchers, as well as identify potential new hires. Students, postdocs and other university researchers will also have opportunities for industry internships and sabbaticals with consortium industry members.

Dr. Richard H. Linton, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said the Plant Soil Microbial Community Consortium is an excellent partnership between university faculty and industry. “Through working together, this group will uncover new discoveries and will solve problems very relevant to agriculture,” he said.

For more information or to get involved, contact Thompson at (919) 515-2717 or

— Julie Long and Dee Shore (919) 513-3117 or