Plants, like all living things, have co-evolved along with microbes. Plants are complex ecosystems for microbes, where every part of the plant and every surface can host and be shaped by a distinct community of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms.
While we have known for centuries that these microbes exist, only in the last few decades have researchers been able to understand the microbial communities associated with plants by identifying key species and estimating their abundance. We now know that there are microbial communities, “microbiomes,” that are intimately linked to different species of plants.
Today, microbiome research is starting to shift from cataloging ‘who is there’ to working towards an understanding of how these microbiomes are formed, their function, persistence and ability to be passed on to the next generation. At the same time, scientists have shifted their focus from less complex model organisms used in the early days of microbiome research, to economically important staple crops that are grown worldwide.
In my research I work to understand how we can harness the plant microbiome for a more sustainable future. Specifically, my goal is to identify microbial communities that play a role in resilience and improved crop yield. For example, I am interested in the role microbiomes play in drought resilience. An example of a microbe that is able to provide drought tolerance is Glomeromycota, an arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi that has been shown to increase grass biomass and reduce oxidative stress associated with drought. Other microbes have been suggested to play a role in alleviating drought stress in plants, but the mechanisms of how specific microbes are able to help plants tolerate drought is yet to be fully understood. Harnessing beneficial microbial communities will prove ever more important in our effort to decrease inputs and increase resilience to climate change and all its repercussions.
Despite all the curiosity in plant microbiomes and increasing value in harnessing their impact, we have few solutions that have materialized from our collective knowledge. My research focuses on the wheat seed microbiome. I am specifically interested in how stressors impact the wheat seed microbiome and whether changes in the seed microbiome help identify key microbes for the development of novel microbial biotechnology. I go about this research by growing wheat varieties of interest in a USDA field station in Raleigh, and I also grow wheat in a greenhouse so that we can control water availability for the plants and mimic drought and well-watered environments. I am currently isolating fungi and bacteria from the wheat seeds of drought afflicted plants to identify key players in the wheat seed microbial community.
I have been privileged to be part of the 2018-2021 FFAR Fellows cohort. This unique opportunity has exceeded my expectations for a professional development program. I appreciate connecting with mentors at my sponsor company Novozymes and outside my department at North Carolina State University. I will carry the lessons learned and insight provided by the many knowledgeable partners at FFAR into the future.
More about Lindsey Becker
2018-2021 FFAR Fellow