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New discovery may boost backyard crops

A Missouri biochemist has discovered a link between a pink bacteria and plant growth that may led to increased yields for both farmers and backyard gardeners.

The bacteria may be a cheap and natural way to boost plant production and battle diseases. However, it will be years before soybean, corn or wheat farmers can enjoy the benefits of their findings, said Joe Polacco, professor of biochemistry at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Polacco is working with fellow researcher Mark Holland, a biology professor at Salisbury State University in Salisbury, Md.

The bacteria, methylobacterium, is found on all seeds and plants and is vital for growth.

"We found that when seeds get old and don't germinate, it's often because the bacteria died," Holland said.

The bacteria's presence increased germination rates in new seeds and rejuvenated older seeds, he said.

"The bacteria's activities are invisible," he said. "It was only when we took the bacteria away that we saw how it affected growth."

Besides promoting growth, the pink bacteria may replace chemicals sprayed on fields to fight bacteria or fungi that hurt or kill plants, Polacco said.

"The beauty of biotechnology is that we can get mother nature do things for us much cheaper than using chemical engineering," Polacco said. "And as we understand more about biology, the next step is genetic engineering."

One key aspect of this pink bacteria research has to do with the production of a growth hormone called cytokinin ("cyto" is a Greek word meaning cell).

Although researchers have tried to introduce bacteria to stimulate plant growth for some time, their efforts failed to establish a connection between the bacteria and cytokinin production. When they tried to introduce cytokinin production, plants developed tumors or diseases.

The discovery by Polacco and Holland showed that the pink bacteria somehow stimulates plant growth and stimulates cytokinin production.

"This bacteria is different in that it is a quiet bacteria," said Polacco. "It is a fellow traveler with the plant without doing any damage."