February 29, 2024

Drought Microbiome

by Tessa Desmond in Projects

Young okra plant on drip irrigation.  Photo by Tessa Lowinske Desmond.

Drought Microbiome Study

Faculty Lead: Jonathan Conway

The plant microbiome – the microbes that are in, on, and around roots and leaves – have a large impact on the growth, health, and productivity of plants. This microbiome community changes with various cues including plant age, soil type, and stress conditions like drought. Understanding the mechanisms by which these microbes interact and provide benefits to plants will enable us to deploy them to improve the growth of plants in our agriculture systems. 

Many studies have identified microbes that are enriched in plants undergoing drought stress, and suggest that these microbes provide protective benefits to the plant enabling them to survive drought stress and grow better when watering resumes. The mechanisms for this microbiome-mediated drought resilience are unknown. At the Seed Farm in summer 2023, the Conway Lab in Princeton’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, grew corn and soybean groups with different watering treatments. We monitored these plants over a period of 3 months, taking root samples every two weeks.  These samples will be used for DNA sequencing to determine what microbes are present over periods of water availability versus drought. The Conway lab is also isolating microbes from the soil at the Seed Farm to enable lab-scale experiments that recapitulate the results in the field.  

Ultimately our goal is to develop microbial strains that can be used to inoculate agricultural crops to improve their drought tolerance and improve agricultural productivity. These strains may also provide other benefits to plants that reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides or fertilizers. Understanding ways to improve crop resilience during drought is important as extreme weather events caused by climate change continue to increase and threaten our agriculture systems.  

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