plant Endophyte Research Center
Agriculture and Forestry are Virginia’s largest industries, accounting for over $91 billion dollars and over 442,000 jobs. Therefore, researchers at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) are focused on improving agricultural production naturally through biology and technology. They are spotlighting biotechnology in the form of beneficial plant bacteria endophytes, the products they produce and mechanisms they possess to engineer faster growing and healthier plants.
IALR’s Plant Endophyte Research Center accumulates the years of research and expertise by IALR scientists on beneficial bacteria, or endophytes, that live inside plant tissues. By first isolating and characterizing endophytes from regional plants, IALR scientists then use these endophytes as a toolbox to fight common crop diseases and to increase overall plant growth and health. They do this while protecting the environment and satisfying the consumer demand for healthier food. Additionally, technology, such as next-generation DNA sequencing, robotic and drone imaging, and data analytics, is used to find precisely what formulations work best in a crop-specific and environmental situation.
Although great effort has recently been directed toward endophytes, the field of study is relatively new and much is to be learned, including plant species and cultivar specificity, complex genetic regulation of beneficial traits, protective compounds they produce, their interactions with plant genomics and their importance in plant breeding programs. Endophytes also represent a rich source of biologically active metabolites that find wide-ranging applications from natural agrochemicals to antibiotics. To take advantage of this untapped reservoir of beneficial organisms and byproducts, IALR scientists are currently focused on isolating bacteria from plants in the Blue Ridge Mountain Region. This region, one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, is characterized by immense ecological diversity. Once isolated and purified, collected endophytes are then screened for promising agricultural traits such as IAA hormone production, ACC deaminase activity, nitrogen fixation, phosphate solubilization and antimicrobial activities. The most promising candidates are screened for growth promotion, drought resistance and disease inhibiting characteristics.
The first of its kind in the United States, IALR’s Plant Endophyte Research Center now boasts a library of more than 2,000 characterized endophytes and continues to grow. The state-supported IALR operates between the realms of academia and industry, allowing its scientists a unique environment for sustained endeavors. They can venture into new areas without the constraints of highly competitive grant funding and can partner with industry in an IP-friendly manner. IALR researchers capitalize on their knowledge of fundamental research and heed industry principles of robust IP, ownership, scale-up and shelf life.
Non-competitive, Quasi-governmental Business Model – Enables unique positioning as a neutral entity to facilitate co-development, co-licensing and other collaborative agreements with both university scientists and industry.
Infrastructure Designed for the Study of Biostimulants – Includes over 3,000 square feet of biology lab space, 1,200 square feet of chemistry lab space and 4,200 square feet of greenhouse space, each outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment.
Knowledge from 10 Years of Scientific Inquiry – Includes many successful peer-reviewed publications and grant awards totaling more than $1 million.
Collaboration to Spur Innovation – This center brings together expertise from various entities to leverage funding at the local, regional and national levels, creating a pipeline of products and licensing opportunities for partnering companies and a self-sustaining business model for IALR. In addition, the center serves as a resource to regional industries, farmers and universities, partnering to solve agriculturally important challenges as society demands safer and more sustainable food cultivating practices.
Long before the current interest in biostimulants started, researchers at IALR studied the fundamentals of plant and endophyte interactions by merging the fields of plant science, microbiology and molecular biology. Jerzy Nowak, a founder of the plant research initiative at IALR, is a pioneer in the field of endophyte research. A bacterial endophyte he isolated in the late 1980’s, Burkholderia phytofirmans strain PsJN (PsJN), has been the subject of intense global study. PsJN has been proven to promote growth across a wide range of plants, including potatoes, tomatoes, grapevines and peppers.
Initial endophyte work at IALR focused on both potato and the promising bioenergy crop switchgrass. Endophyte-inoculated switchgrass yield increased more than 50% after 2.5 months in the field and was accompanied by increased root size and development. Scientists at IALR have also explored the fundamental interactions of beneficial bacterial endophytes and their host plants at the genetic and molecular levels, publishing more than 10 peer-reviewed articles in various journals distributed globally.
Endophyte research at IALR has also generated successful grant proposals totaling more than $900,000, including;
- $750,000 Department of Energy Plant Feedstock Genomics Grant
- $258,000 Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRRC) Grant – Utilizing Beneficial Bacterial Endophytes for Farm-specific Agricultural Solutions in Southern Virginia
- $54,200 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Specialty Crop Block Grant – Disease Inhibition in Strawberry Using Biological Controls
- $50,000 TRRC Grape Improvement Grant
- $42,000 Altavista PCB Remediation Grant (Town of Altavista, VA)
- $37,000 Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) Grape Improvement Grant
Lowman S, Kim-Dura S, Mei C and Nowak J. 2015. Strategies for enhancement of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) performance under limited nitrogen supply based on utilization of N-fixing bacterial endophytes. Plant Soil 405:47-63.
Lara-Chavez A, Lowman S, Kim S, Tang Y, Zhang J, Udvardi M, Nowak J, Flinn B and Mei C. 2015. Global gene expression profiling of two switchgrass cultivars following inoculation with Burkholderia phytofirmans strain PsJN. J Exp Bot, 66 (14): 4337-4350.
Lowman S, Kim S, Lara-Chavez A, Flinn B, Nowak J and Mei C. 2015. Switchgrass field performance on two soils as affected by bacterization of seedlings with Burkholderia phytofirmans strain PsJN. BioEnergy Research 8:440-449.
Mei C, Lara-Chavez A, Lowman S and Flinn B. 2014. The use of endophytes and mycorrhizae in switchgrass for biomass production. In: Compendium of Bioenergy Plants: Switchgrass, edited by Luo H, Wu Y and Kole C. The Science publishers, Inc. (New Hampshire) jointly with CRC Press of Taylor and Francis Group. pp67-108.
Lowman S., Kim S., Lara-Chavez A., Flinn B., Nowak J., Mei C. Switchgrass-Beneficial Bacterial Endophyte Interactions to Improve Soil Remediation. 24th Annual Environment Virginia Symposium, Charting Our Future: New Tools for Complex Challenges, Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Lexington Virginia, April 9-11, 2013.
Kim S, Lowman S, Hou G, Nowak J, Flinn B and Mei C. 2012. Growth promotion and colonization of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) cv. Alamo by bacterial endophyte Burkholderia phytofirmans strain PsJN. Biotechnol Biofuels 5:37