The Next Big Thing #5: A Crop For All Seasons
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 27, 2013
A few years ago at a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park, scientists were astonished to discover panic grass flourishing at 158 degrees Fahrenheit. The secret to this extreme tolerance wasn’t just about the plant itself. It also required interaction between a root fungus and a virus. That discovery led researchers to seek out root microbes from plants in various extreme environments, from dunes to alpine slopes.
Why bother? The weather is rapidly becoming more extreme and less predictable, complicating life for farmers everywhere. Scientists have responded with crops that are genetically engineered for a trait such as drought tolerance. But the Yellowstone discovery suggested a more flexible approach, one that doesn’t require farmers to predict the future and buy the right seeds at the start of the season. Instead, they’ll be able to treat a crop with a cocktail of different extreme-climate microbes so that the most beneficial microbes will proliferate, even as growing conditions shift.