Bacteria can boost biofuels growth on barren soil

April 1st, 2009 - 12:26 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, April 1 (IANS) Scientists have found a way to grow plants for biofuels on unproductive, barren or contaminated soil, without appropriating fertile croplands - just add the right kind of bacteria.
“If we have bacteria that can help plants to grow better, we can then use these soils for the economic production of biofuels,” said Daniel van der Lelie, microbiologist at Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island, New York and co-author of a new study on the subject.

Researchers focussed on improving the growth of poplar trees. They are known for their rapid growth and ability to survive in many different climates, both ideal traits for biofuel production.

The Brookhaven group found that adding the right kinds of naturally occurring bacteria to the roots of poplar trees increased their biomass production by up to 80 percent over 10 weeks, according to van der Lelie.

They turned to specific bacteria that are essential to plant life, called endophytic bacteria. Just as humans have microbes in their gut, plants naturally have bacteria that live inside their tissues and do not cause disease, he said.

They identified 78 strains of bacteria from the roots and stems of poplar trees, and they tested the ability of certain strains to help poplars grow in a greenhouse.

The researchers first grew poplar tree cuttings in beakers containing a nutrient solution, then added specific bacteria to the beakers. After a few days, the plants were transferred to sandy soil in a greenhouse.

Once 10 weeks were up, the scientists harvested the trees and determined their total biomass. They found that two bacteria species, Burkholderia cepacia and a species of Enterobacter, had a large growth-promoting effect.

However, even if researchers are able to improve poplar growth on poor soils, there are still obstacles to overcome before these trees can be used as biofuel, said a Brookhaven release.

One problem is that the current methods for converting plant matter, called cellulose, into ethanol fuel are very expensive. If these problems are solved, they could also put unproductive land to good use.

The study was published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

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