On a frigid day last February, Maren Friesen drove eight hours across snow-covered plains to Centralia, Pennsylvania. A fire ignited a seam of coal below the town in 1962, and more than 60 years later it’s still smoldering away underground. The place is a steaming, smoldering wasteland—one that may hold a key to feeding the world.
Friesen, a microbiologist, is on a hunt for a microbe thought to live in these strange, hot soils. The humble bacterium has an unusual ability that may help farmers grow more crops.
More than a decade ago, German scientists described the elusive bacterium, known as Streptomyces thermoautotrophicus, which has a special knack for converting nitrogen from the air to a form that plants can use—even in the presence of oxygen, which normally poisons the bacterial enzyme that pumps out nitrogen. The process is called “fixing” nitrogen.
But after the initial finding about the bacterium, it apparently went missing. If it can be found again, and its abilities engineered into plants that normally can’t fix nitrogen, farmers could grow more crops using less fertilizer.
And this bacterium is just one of many that could change farming. Among the millions of microorganisms right under our feet could lie many untapped tools for improving agriculture. These microbes are already making soils fertile and helping plants grow, and scientists hope to employ them, or at least borrow their skills, to boost crop yields.
Now, both university researchers and major agricultural companies are looking for new ways to use soil bacteria. Some hope to genetically engineer plants with microbial genes or to breed plants that better interact with beneficial soil microbes, and thus change the makeup of microbial communities to spur plant growth. Startups and established companies are racing to market microbial cocktails and so-called biologicals to do just this.