Canola to get help from bacteria

Researchers at XiteBio Technologies are focusing on commercializing a natural rhizobia to benefit canola. Early field tests show that the Yield+ product increases canola yields by as much as 11 percent.

The company also has projects underway with microbials that will benefit wheat, corn and other crops, said president Manas Banerjee.

“Everything we do at XiteBio is intended to increase agricultural production at a reduced input cost and in an eco-friendly way,” Banerjee said. “That is why we only work with naturally occurring microbials and we do not alter their genetic makeup. We use them only in their natural form.”

XiteBio Technologies released SoyRhizo and PeasRhizo in the United States in 2011 and in Canada last year.

SoyRhizo has increased soybean yields by three to nine bushels per acre, while PeasRhizo has increased pea yield by an average of 2.2 bu.per acre and lentil yields by as much as 7.9 percent. Both products have proven effective 85 to 90 percent of the time.

The process of identifying helpful bacteria starts with shovels of dirt taken from fields that have a reputation for growing healthy, high-yielding crops. Research has proven that soil capable of growing good canola crops has high populations of micro-organisms that colonize the roots and work well with a canola rhizosphere or root system.

The collection comes from all regions where canola is a major crop.

Banerjee said these fields have a variety of micro-organisms gathered around the brassica root hairs. These microbials are specific to the canola rhizosphere, so that gives researchers a good start.

However, a one gram soil sample contains billions of naturally occurring biological residents. The challenge for researchers is to find the one that has the most significant impact on the target crop.

“We might have a few thousand different microbials to begin with, so to narrow that down, we set our criteria for selection. We ask, ‘what do we want from these bacteria?’ ” he said.

“In our work right now with canola, we want to identify bacteria that will make nutrients more available to canola roots. Which organisms do the best job of converting phosphorus to phosphate, sulfur to sulfate and nitrogen in ammonium to nitrate for the plants. We are also selecting for better hormone production.

“We can’t see them with the naked eye or touch them, but we know how to culture them in the lab. We separate them out so each bacterium is only tested by itself, never with other micro-organisms, never in a mixture. We repeat these lab tests year after year to weed out the poor candidates and collect data on the good ones.”

The tests go on for years in the growth room and greenhouse.

Any candidate that shows the first sign of weakness is eliminated. Only the strongest and most beneficial candidates survive the rigorous testing procedure.

Testing in the field is more expensive and time consuming. Plot trials don’t begin until the number of candidates has been narrowed down to dozens or perhaps hundreds that show potential.

The number is quickly whittled down in plot trial screening to five to 10 bacteria.

This select handful of competitors must then consistently show a yield benefit and ability to survive in trials conducted on fields over a number of years .

“Once we have a clear winner so we can say ‘yes, that’s the one we want,’ then we have to ask if it can be reproduced in bigger volumes and also what about the shelf life,” he said.

“Six months shelf life isn’t good enough. Once we know it has one year or two years, then we’re confident it’s worth pursuing. And we can try to scale it up. Can it reproduce into 10,000 or 50,000 litre batches without losing any of those beneficial traits we selected for?

“When we scale it up, it’s critical to maintain all the criteria we set in the first place. If you scale up and the candidate loses any of the traits, if it weakens, then it’s flushed down the drain and we start over.”

For its canola inoculant, XiteBio has narrowed the list down to two or three bacteria that have survived the selection process.

Banerjee said it has taken four years to bring those candidates this close to the final decision, and more testing is still on the agenda.

XiteBio is now working with more than 1,500 bacteria in its culture collection. Banerjee said keeping track of that many living candidates and keeping them healthy can be a costly proposition.

“It costs from $1 million to $10 million to bring a biological ag microbial inoculant to market,” he said.

“In comparison, a conventional ag chemical averages about $70 million and a pharmaceutical for people costs up to $4 billion. An agricultural biological agent is less expensive than other products because we don’t do any genetic modification. We just select the right natural bacteria we want and then scale it up.”

For more information, contact Banerjee at 204-257-0775 or visit www.xitebio.ca.

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