Finding bacteria the root of their dreams

Dr. Lauren Jabusch

Who here has ever rented or bought a place to live? Then you know that the three most important things to consider in a home are location, location, and location. The same is true for bacteria, which is the focus of my work.

I study soil, particularly the soil bacteria that interacts with the root of plants. And I study it in a new way that I believe can tell us more about these interactions. The conventional method to study these bacteria is to grind and find. We literally throw the entire ecosystem into a blender and then work backwards to determine bacteria’s relationship to plants. This is limiting because it doesn’t allow us to understand the nuances of how the bacteria lived in a specific place on the roots. In other words, scientists haven’t understood what makes a good home for bacteria with location in consideration. I want to change that.

Three grams of soil contains as many bacteria cells as people in America, each with their own “housing” needs. Some like to snuggle up next to the root of a plant, forming symbiotic relationships that make both thrive. Others live far away from plants, scavenging for survival. I have observed that there are many external impacts on the livelihood of even just one bacteria. As examples, the neighborhood of my bacteria will change depending on how much the plant is watered and the age of the plant.

How do I know the dynamics of these bacteria? I’ve developed a device called an imaging ecological fabrication, or imaging ecoFAB. The imaging ecoFAB can support a small plant and its surrounding bacteria through their entire life cycles. Excitingly, the device can be placed on a high resolution microscope to observe all the nuances of the root structure, understanding places that bacteria could call home. We pair the images that I take with genetic and chemical analyses, allowing us to know who lives in the neighborhood and what they like to eat. Integrating these methods paints a full picture of the diverse lives of bacteria.

Why is important to study the housing needs of bacteria? We have increased global food production with innovations like domestication, chemical fertilizers, and modern plant breeding. But we still have hungry people. Adding beneficial bacteria to farm soils is the next wave of innovation to feed ourselves. We need to understand where and how these beneficial bacteria live on roots in order to capture their advantages on our farms. My innovations define which bacteria can coexist with crop plants, driving our next wave of progress.

Whether they are looking for a fixer upper or a cozy apartment, I’m ready to find the perfect home for beneficial bacteria. I just need to find the bacteria their best location, location, location.