Research News

Secret to weathering climate change could lie at our feet

Research on the microbiome of grass shows that the future lies with healthy bacteria

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have discovered that the ability of agricultural grasses to withstand drought is directly related to the health of the microbial community living on their stems, leaves and seeds.

"Microbes do an enormous amount for the grasses that drive the world's agriculture," says Emily Bechtold, lead author of a U.S. National Science Foundation-funded paper published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology. "They protect from pathogens, provide the grass with nutrients such as nitrogen, supply hormones to bolster the plant's health and growth, protect from UV radiation and help the grass manage drought." 

Yet the increased severity and longevity of climate-change-driven drought conditions across the world is sapping the ability of the microbiome to thrive.

Since 60% of all agriculture is grass-related -- think of the cows, sheep and other grass-munching livestock that provide meat, milk, cheese, leather, wool and other staples -- the bacteria living on grass touch every aspect of people's lives, from what they eat for breakfast to food security, economics and international development.

Bechtold’s research focuses on two types of grasses: those that make up the majority of grasslands in temperate zones, and those that predominate in tropical regions. 

"The goal of this research," says Klaus Nüsslein, the paper's senior author, "is to manage the interactions between plants and the bacteria they host, and to support sustainable agriculture." Until now, however, it was largely unknown how grass and its microbiome supported one another, and what effects drought might have on bacterial communities.