Microbiota at the heart of plant health

Write by Audrey-Maude Vézina

January 20, 2020

( update : September 15, 2020 )

The year 2020 has been declared the International Year of Plant Health by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The health of plants depends primarily on the micro-organisms that accompany them. The team led by Professor Étienne Yergeau at INRS studies plant microbiota in view of promoting plant health and productivity.

Le microbiote au cœur de la santé végétale

“Plants interact with tens of thousands of organisms that are crucial to their health. They can’t survive without their microbiota. This evolutionary relationship probably began when plants first colonized land,” says Professor Étienne Yergeau, a specialist in microbial ecology at INRS in Laval, Quebec.

The Microbiota of the Future

Étienne Yergeau professeur en écologie microbienne à l’Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS)
Professor Étienne Yergeau

One of Professeur Yergeau’s goals is to make plants more resilient to stress induced by climate change. An adapted microbiota could help plants weather more frequent periods of drought. To test this hypothesis, the researcher is leading a project to identify and isolate micro-organisms responsible for adaptation to stress. Using the best micro-organisms identified, his team then reconstitutes the microbial community and tests plant resistance to stress.

Professor Yergeau is also looking into excessive use of fertilizers that harm microbiota and alter plant nutrition, notably nitrogen nutrition in wheat. “We want to see how wheat might associate with micro-organisms that could help it recover nitrogen from the soil in order to reduce the use of fertilizers or boost their effectiveness,” he explains.

Microbiota may also have a role to play in reducing pesticide use. Micro-organisms help plants defend against insect pests. Some fungi and bacteria can kill insects, while others emit volatile compounds that can help repel them,” he adds.

Enough Production to Meet Global Needs

In addition to keeping plants healthy, microbiota could promote plant growth and boost harvest quality. “This is very important, especially with the global population explosion. We’re facing a production shortfall. We need to boost yields or ensure that plants can grow on lower-quality land to meet planetary demand for food,” he adds.

Professor Yergeau is convinced that plant microbiota holds the key to maintaining productivity in the face of climate change and reduced pesticide and fertilizer use.