Microbiologist isolates nitrogen-fixing plant microorganisms
Reducing the need for chemical fertilizers in crop production may be an achievable goal, thanks to fungi or bacteria that live within plant tissues without damaging the plant called endophytes, according to professor Heike Bücking. The microbiologist and her research team have isolated endophytes from different crop plant species that have plant growth-promoting capabilities, including the ability to fix gaseous nitrogen and convert it into a form that plants can use.
“Endophytes can do amazing things,” Bücking said. Consequently, agricultural biotechnology companies are supporting endophyte research in her lab to advance their goal of developing microbial fertilizers and pesticides. That’s good news for farmers because they can produce high-yielding crops while minimizing fertilizer or pesticide use, which is also good for the environment.
“The market is huge—and growing,” said Bücking, who has a contract with Indigo, a startup company, to investigate endophytes as potential components for microbial-based agricultural products and solutions. The contract, which supports one doctoral student and helps pay for lab materials and supplies, gives Indigo the right to use these bacterial endophytes for commercially applicable product development.
“Several other companies are also interested in taking advantage of the endophytes that we have isolated,” Bücking added.Last year, she filed 20 invention disclosures for endophytes discovered in Brassica carinata. “Endophytes are not an invention—we isolated them and are evaluating their plant growth-promoting capabilities,” she explained.
For her endophyte research, Bücking received the Pat and Jo Cannon Intellectual Property Commercialization Award at the university’s Celebration of Faculty Excellence. The award recognizes faculty members whose inventions have the potential for regional economic development and successful commercialization through a technology transfer process with industry partners.
Assistant Vice President Will Aylor of the Office of Technology Transfer and Commercialization said, “Each endophyte is a separate disclosure with the potential for licensing. The commercial goal is to find partners to help the researchers determine what the consumers need in the field and help build the laboratory capability at SDSU to find those endophytes.” The university will receive royalties if any of these endophytes become part of a commercial product.