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Researchers hope to develop biofertilizer using Utah plant bacteria

Amita Kaundal is wearing a white lab coat and holding plants while standing in a laboratory chamber with white walls.
USU Plants, Soils and Climate

Amita Kaundal is a professor with Utah State University's Department of Plants, Soils and Climate. Kaundal and collaborators recently received a grant from the Department of Agriculture to research bacterial species in native Utah plants. Their goal is to create biofertilizers to sustainably produce crops, in the face of increasingly dry and saline conditions caused by climate change.

“They can have potential as a bio fertilizer, or biostimulant, or bio control agenda, depending upon how they are helping plants, whether they are helping with stress management, or just the growth and promotion, or maybe they are helping with dealing with certain pathogens,” Kaundal said.

Kaundal and her students have been collecting soil and root samples of native Utah mountain mahogany and snowbrush plants. They isolate and identify bacterial species from these samples and characterize them for plant growth-promoting abilities.

Bacteria that contribute significantly to plant growth are then tested on model plants in a growth chamber and then on different crops in the greenhouse. The final step in this research is to test these bacteria species on crops in a field setting, working with farmers to account for the role the environment plays in plant-bacteria relationships.

Kaundal’s collaborators are completing similar tests on bacteria found in the soil of roots in Great Salt Lake plant species in order to also test crop growth in increasingly saline soil environments.

“So applying different stresses like drought and salt stress, and then applying these bacteria and seeing whether these bacteria these bacteria, they are helping those plants or not,” Kaundal explained.

While chemical fertilizers help with crop growth, they kill off soil microbes. These microbes have been known to play a key role in the health and growth of plant species by, for example, converting nitrogen in the atmosphere into compounds plants can take up as a nitrogen nutrient and grow.

“We are developing these bio fertilizers, because we know with climate induced changes, either we are having extreme winters or very hot summers, we are having extended droughts or flooding," Kaundal said. "So these are the extreme weather conditions we are getting, which are directly impacting our crop production."

Erin Lewis is a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a PhD Candidate in the biology department at Utah State University. She is passionate about fostering curiosity and communicating science to the public. At USU she studies how anthropogenic disturbances are impacting wildlife, particularly the effects of tourism-induced dietary shifts in endangered Bahamian Rock Iguana populations. In her free time she enjoys reading, painting and getting outside with her dog, Hazel.