Seed World

Penn State Invests in Phytobiome Research, Partnerships

In this scanning electron microscope image, the bacteria (Acetobacter xylinum) is producing cellulose nanofibers, which are incredibly strong for how light they are. Engineers use the nanofibers to create materials that have a wide range of uses, from strong composites to tissue engineering.

Five months after it created a university-wide Microbiome Center, Pennsylvania State University joined the International Alliance for Phytobiomes Research, known as the Phytobiomes Alliance, as a sponsoring partner.

“Strategic partnership with the Phytobiomes Alliance is timely for both Penn State and the alliance because of the excitement in the Microbiome Center around phytobiomes and the international reach and potential partnerships offered by the alliance,” says Carolee Bull, interim director of the Microbiome Center and head of the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Penn State.

Phytobiome is a term that relates to a plant (phyto) in a specific ecological area (biome). It includes the plant itself, all micro- and macro-organisms living in, on or around the plant — such as microbes, animals and other plants — and the environment, including soil, air, water and climate.

Bull explains that several sub-disciplines have emerged, one of which is the Phytobiomes Strategic Networking Initiative funded by the College of Agricultural Sciences. This group comprises faculty who have recently joined the phytobiomes team or are being sought as part of an asynchronous microbiome-cluster hire. In addition, this group is teaming with the Penn State Plant Biology Graduate Program to host the 21st Plant Biology Symposium on Phytobiomes in May 2018.

Representatives of Phytobiomes Alliance sponsors serve on the Coordinating Committee, which identifies research, resource and technology gaps, establishes priorities, and develops strategic plans to achieve alliance goals.

“Microbial communities are key components of phytobiomes,” says Kellye Eversole, Phytobiomes Alliance executive director who welcomed Penn State as a new sponsor. “By bringing into the alliance its broad range of expertise on plant microbiomes, Penn State will help us identify priorities and develop research agendas to meet the challenges of tomorrow’s agriculture.”

The Phytobiomes Alliance is an international, nonprofit consortium of academic institutions, large and small companies, and governmental agencies, established in 2016 to coordinate public-private research projects on various aspects of agriculturally relevant phytobiomes.

Over the next decades, agricultural research and food, feed and fiber production must make a paradigm shift to meet the future demands of a projected 2050 world population of 9.6 billion in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.

By establishing a foundation of knowledge on how phytobiome components interact and affect each other, the Phytobiomes Alliance envisions that all farmers, ranchers, growers and foresters will have at their disposal predictive and prescriptive tools to choose the best combination of crops, management practices and inputs for a specific field in a given year.