Climate change is no longer a myth that policy makers can scoff about. No pretending that it doesn’t exist. No pretending that it isn’t already affecting mankind. Not in the face of unprecedented and dramatic weather extremes that people all over the world are living through right now: heat waves, floods, mudslides, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and more.
These severe weather conditions will increasingly affect food security. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the risk of hunger and malnutrition worldwide could increase by as much as 20 percent by 2050, with developing countries predicted to be especially vulnerable.
But mankind has genius on its side – people whose curiosity, observation and love for nature is insisting on finding solutions. One such person is microbiologist Rusty Rodriguez, CEO and founder of Symbiogenics. He gave a fascinating TEDxTalk on his work that promises to secure food production for generations to come (see below).
He believes we can protect crops against global warming by exploiting the secrets of plants that already thrive in the most punishing climates. To find out how plants survive in soil and moisture extremes he and geneticist Regina Redman collected 200 different samples of panic grass in Yellowstone National Park.
Rodriguez and his team studied the plants under microscopes and discovered that all the plants were colonized by the same fungus. The scientists then grew the plants and fungi separately to find out if there were an ecological significance to this association.
They made a significant discovery: when growing separately neither could survive temperatures above 100 degrees but when they grow together they can survive temperatures of 160 degrees and more.
“These plants were no more adapted to those stressors than your average garden plant, but they had adapted by forming symbiotic associations with the microscopic fungi that lived inside them,” says Rodriguez.
The researchers realized they were on to something. They sprayed different agricultural plants with fungi and subjected them to a range of stressed conditions in their lab and discovered that the fungi and the plants survived.
“Some fungi have the ability to form symbiotic associations with plants that are genetically distant from the species they were discovered in,” told his TEDxRainer audience.
This is the key point: fungi can form symbiotic relationships with a large range of different food crops humans need to survive.
“We looked at stress habitats ranging from coastal beaches to high up on Mount Everest. We found that none of the plant survived, except through symbiotic cooperation with microscope fungi that live inside the plants – they grow in between then plant cells.”
The amazing life-saving takeaway?
The scientist developed formulations of micro-organisms that can be sprayed onto the seeds of crop plants and the emergent plants are resistant to drought, temperature and salt stress.
This technology has been proven to increase crop yields and it has happened without requiring additional land, fertilizer, labor or most importantly, water.
“It’s a truly remarkable technology, and you know, it has been developed by nature for about 450 million years,” says Rodriguez.
This is a reminder from nature to all of us that extraordinary things can be achieved through cooperation concluded Rodriguez.
As humanity scrambles for ways to adapt, scientists are looking for ways to protect the future of food. Seattle-based microbiologist Rusty Rodriguez believes one possible solution might be to leverage an ancient cooperative relationship between fungi and plants.
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