'The Project'

'The Project.' That's what I call it anyway. Over the past three years it has had many names, ranging from 'A statistical investigation of the effects of diazotroph bacteria on plant germination' to 'Combating the Global Food Crisis: Diazotroph bacteria as a cereal crop growth promoter.' The one name that has been kept constant throughout, however, is 'The Project.'

I'll be honest, my pet peeve is inaccurate media reports on exactly what we did, but in all fairness there isn't many. Just to clear things up, though, here's a full breakdown of our work:

Combating the Global Food Crisis using Rhizobium Bacteria - Youtube

We got the idea for our project in February 2012 when Emer found nodules on the roots of her mom's pea plants. Not knowing what they were, she brought them in to her science teacher, as we were studying plant biology at the time. This is how we found out about Rhizobium bacteria, a natural soil living bacteria commonly known for it's nitrogen fixing properties with legume plants. Later in Ms Dullea's maths class (we sit in the same seats for chemistry now), I was discussing this bacteria with Emer, and fun fact: we initially thought to use it as an antibiotic! We eventually realised this wasn't feasible, however, and after learning about the african food crisis in geography we decided to investigate how rhizobium could be used to aid it.

We began with tests to see how it affected cereal crops during germination stage as we could find no literary evidence of work on this area. After conducting thorough experiments we found that by using rhizobia we could increase germination rate by an average of 50%. The implications for this result were actually outlined for us by a dutch farmer we met at the BT Young Scientist: when seeds are sown in adverse weather conditions, they are at their most vulnerable before they germinate. By speeding up the germination rate we can reduce the number of seeds rotting in the soil and so increase yields.

Next, and this is a stage often forgotten by the media, we performed enzyme analysis tests. These experiments involved conducting in depth analysis of what was happening inside our seeds, and our we were glad to see our results mirrored what we had noted macroscopically during the germination experiments on a molecular level.

Finally we had our small and large scale field trials. We were dealing with natural bacteria, but it had spent some time in a lab, so we replicated an agricultural setting whilst taking containment into consideration. After conducting these experiments we found that rhizobium bacteria could increase crop productivity by an average of 40%, with some results exceeding 74%. This would mean a substantial increase in income for commercial farmers, and more food for those suffering from the global food crisis. There is also some potential for decrease in use of some harmful fertilisers which are causing damage to the environment.

Evidently we had found a notable effect, but we had to stop to ask why we were seeing these results. I did a little bit of digging and found research from different sources which, when brought together, could explain what was happening. Research in Mexico has found that the poaceae grass species (close cousins of the crops we used) have been shown to contain plant hormones or signals called flavonoids. In the nitrogen fixation process with legumes, flavonoids are known to trigger the release of lipochito-oligosaccharides (LCOs) from rhizobium bacteria (these go on to trigger root hair deformation of legumes but this is not relevant for us. A little known property of LCOs is their ability to increase rate of germination of cereal crops when isolated from rhizobium, proven by Dr. Smith of McGill University, Canada. We believe that the flavonoids in the seeds are triggering the release of LCOs from the bacteria which go on to hormonally benefit seed germination and growth. By us applying concentrated rhizobium bacteria to our seeds we were joining up the dots for nature to 'do it's thing.'

So what next, you may ask? Emer and I plan to get stuck in again in the new year and examine a new area of this mechanism which we have become increasingly interested in: the advanced biochemistry of the bacteria-seed interaction. This will involve invitro testing of the bacteria in the presence of seeds, so we can analyse the compounds it releases through mass spectrometry (the principles of which we are currently learning in chemistry). Also, to my mother's dismay, we are in the market for a nice shed where we hope to set up our new lab in the back garden. Obviously commercialisation is our end game, but with the leaving certificate and college to tackle first, that's a few years down the line. We accept and embrace the fact that somebody might get there before us: our research is publicly posted online, so it's a realistic possibility. But I don't really mind - the sooner our findings get put into practice the better, so that people can start benefiting from it all over the world!

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