Unleashing the Power of Microbes through Technology

It was actually the first use of microbes, mostly yeasts and fungi that changed the destiny of mankind from being small tribes of hunters and gatherers that lived in caves and practiced spear-throwing, to a society of agrarian communities that realized they could grow crops and then process them to become the major components of their diet. Societies learned how to care for grains, other cereals, vines, and fruit trees through to maturity, then harvest and store what they reaped. It was also discover that yeasts could turn unpalatable grains into tasty breads and of course, beer. This meant that less time need be devoted to hunting down ungulates and lagomorphs and more time was available to drink beer and play darts and poker. And of course the women were the best candidates for planting, tilling, and harvesting crops as well as milling, baking, and serving the food. Yeasts were not only used in breads and beer, but in making cheeses, wines, and preserving cabbage and other vegetables through pickling (vinegar is produced from fruits by certain yeasts). Most of these processes were taken for granted by early society and little if any scientific connection was made. That didn’t happen until the middle of the nineteenth century by, well you probably guessed, another brilliant German scientist, Dr. A. B. Frank. Unlike Drs. Von Liebig, Hamer, and Bosch, who were all chemists, Dr. Frank was a botanist and biologist of great renown. He was so famous that when Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia decided that he needed a better source than the French for his truffles that were slathered on his Jagerschnitzel, he turned to Dr. Frank and told him to go forth and bring back tasty truffles.


Dr. Frank, with a team of students all provided with good digging spades, made of good. German steel travelled the countryside from Mecklenburg to Wurttemberg, from Munchen to Munster, but did not a truffle he find. He did however make some amazing observations about a complex community of microbes that lived in the soil around and throughout the root systems of plants. He concluded that this ecosystem was dominated by one particular organism, yet encompassed and supported a plethora of other microbes, mostly bacteria and fungi. In fact, the soil itself was teeming with life. He named this phenomena “mycorrhiza,” or an environment dominated by a fungus or mushroom (myco from the Greek word for mushroom) and its strong affiliation with the roots of plants (rhiza from the Latin word for root). Hence, no truffles for the Kaiser, but Dr. Frank has gone down in history as the “Discoverer of Mycorrhiza.”


Truffles will not grow under trees that have been fertilized with synthetic-based chemicals.


Understanding soil biology is quickly becoming the “next frontier” for science exploration. Much has been learned through field trials about the undeniable capabilities of mycorrhizae. These trials demonstrate the positive correlation between mycorrhizae and increased plant growth and vitality using a visual representation. Seeing is believing, even if we do not comprehend the intricacies of the system behind the magic. After all, it is not always necessary to know why something works, but the key factor is that it works (although it is pretty fascinating stuff if you really want to dig, no pun intended, deeper into the biology of it all).


Proximal Soil Sensing (PSS) is an evolving branch of soil science that seeks to provide precise, quantitative, fine-resolution data as an effective and inexpensive method to better understand variability in soil. Scientists are optimistic that the information we obtain through PSS will provide us with sustainable solutions to global issues that we face: food, water, energy security, and climate change.

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