Probiotics of the plant world: Why soil microbes are gaining worldwide interest

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Healthy soil is filled with microbes, while unhealthy soil has few microbes. Photo: Phill Lee

Interest in soil microbes seems to be skyrocketing, and not just from organic farmers.

Internationally recognised soil scientist Dr Christine Jones travels the world giving talks on the benefits of microscopic organisms that live in and on plants and how they can help improve the quality of your crop, whether it be on the farm or in the garden.

She said with healthy soil biology, plants have been shown to become more resilient to frosts and diseases.

In addition, soil becomes less susceptible to weeds and it ends up costing less for the farmer or gardener without the added costs of inputs.

Dr Jones, who has been studying microbes and giving talks for 40 years, said over the past two years interest had gone through the roof.

“We’re seeing bigger and bigger crowds coming to field days,” she said.

“Something that you would have had maybe 20 people come along to in New South Wales is now more like 200.”

She believes this is a result of consumers becoming more aware of their food.

“Children’s health is just abysmal now,” she said.

“You can feed your kids with so-called good food and find they’re still having health issues, so people are getting concerned with that.”

So what are they?

Soil microbes have been described by some as the ‘probiotics’ of the plant world.

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A highly magnified view of a healthy plant root shows numerous fine root hairs and the hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi, intermingled with soil particles. Photo: Phill Lee

Soil microbes are microscopic organisms that live in healthy soils. They are essential to the formation of well-structured soil with high water-holding capacity and high nutrient status.

In a Mediterranean climate, for microbes to reach a quorum,  which is the minimum number microbes needed for them to behave properly, there needs to be year-round ground cover, as plant roots act as their food and habitat.

Microbes occur naturally in soils but Dr Jones said that as a result of modern day agriculture, where there is frequently bare soil between crops, a quorum of healthy microbes was often lacking, promoting the need for fertilisers and mineral applications to make up for the low bio-availability of nutrients.

She said, ironically, it was those same fertiliser applications that discouraged microbes from living in the soil and according to her, increasing the diversity of microbes in soil improves the quality of a crop.

“If we have sufficient microbes around the roots they can alter the gene expression of the plant so it is able to defend itself from insects and pathogens” Dr Jones said.

“Furthermore, plants are able to extract, through stimulating specific microbes around their roots, all the nutrients they need.”

Click here to read the full story, originally posted on ABC South West WA.  


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