If you’ve ever walked in a forest following the first rainfall after a dry spell, you would recall a sweet, fresh and powerfully evocative smell. This earthy-smelling substance is geosmin, a chemical released into the air by a soil-dwelling bacteria called actinomycetes.
You may also recall the tangy scent of the sea, evoking memories of crashing waves, sandy beaches and the cry of seagulls. This smell is thanks to dimethyl sulfide, a rather stinky sulfurous compound produced by bloom-forming algae.
But microbial scents can also protect plants. Agricultural crops can wither and die under drought conditions. Microbes — thanks to the scents they release — can help plants better tolerate these stressful conditions, an important service in a warming climate. As a microbial ecologist, my work focuses on understanding how microbes and plants work together, and which microbial scents help crops.
A language of odours
Odours, both good and bad, are caused by chemicals called volatile organic compounds, or volatiles.
Volatiles have low boiling points and other, unique properties that allow them to evaporate easily and travel through the air over long distances — from a microbial perspective, at least. These useful attributes help microbes communicate in soil environments.
Agriculture and climate change are deeply intertwined. A recent study estimates that high temperatures and drought will lead to drastic losses for all major food crops, including maize and wheat. This will have a dramatic impact on the global food supply. We are in dire need of strategies to reduce the negative effects of climate change on crops. One of such strategies stems from microbes.
Raster Electron Microscopy picture of microbes on the human skin as part of an artscience project Fifty Percent Human. Sonja Bäumel
The plant microbiome plays a large role in plant survival and vice versa — plants supply nutrients to their associated microbes that, in return, protect their host through cooperative and competitive interactions. This intimate, co-dependent relationship between the plant and its microbiome is called the holobiont.
Our team investigates the various ways the plant holobiont adapts to stress, such as contamination and drought. We find ways to cultivate microbial communities with plants to boost their resilience to these stresses.
Our experimental field with wheat as a model plant to investigate the effect of drought on the plant microbiome. Ruth Schmidt
We still don’t know how the communication occurs, or which genes and pathways are involved in the release of these volatiles, but we’re working on it. We’re tracing microbial volatiles in the plant holobiont and literally digging out the genes carrying the genetic information to produce those compounds.
We can then select the microbes that carry the genes for the smells that help plants withstand drought — and feed them to our crops like vitamins so that they can continue to provide us with food in a warmer future.
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About the author
Ruth Schmidt is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Microbial Ecology at Université du Québec.
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