Beneficial bacteria

The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research’s lab associate Robert Chretien (left), and chief scientist Dr. Chuansheng Mei (right), research plant endophytes, or beneficial bacteria. These microorganisms naturally fight common crop diseases and enhance plant growth and health.

The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research has launched the nation’s first center that researches beneficial bacteria — from regional plants — that can be used to fight crop diseases and increase plant growth.

The Plant Endophyte Research Center isolates and characterizes endophytes, or beneficial bacteria, from wild-growing plants in the Blue Ridge Mountain Region including those in Pittsylvania and Campbell counties, said Scott Lowman, the Institute’s director of applied research.

More than 2,000 strains of endophytes have been identified at the Institute, said Institute spokeswoman Allison Moore.

“With a library of 2,000 endophyte strains already identified, IALR is well on its way to demonstrating the potential rewards of these natural microorganisms,” according to a news release from the Institute.

Benefits from the good bacteria include decreased use of chemical fertilizers, improvement of soil quality, environmental preservation and sustainable agricultural solutions.

More and more consumers want food without chemical pesticides, Lowman said.

“The demand for biological is just exploding,” he said.

“Helping to protect the environment while satisfying consumer demand for healthier food is a truly inspiring motivator,” Institute Executive Director Mark Gignac said in a prepared statement.

The Institute has three scientists, as well as technicians, working on endophyte research and Lowman wants to hire more.

“The times are changing and that’s one reason we’re increasing the number of scientists working on it,” he said.

Existing building space at the Institute will be used for the endeavor, Moore said.

Establishing the center is the result of years of research the Institute’s scientists have been conducting on plant endophytes, she said.

The Institute provides contract research services with companies, licensing bacteria to those companies, Lowman said. A company approaches the Institute to figure out a way to make a plant bigger and healthier. The Institute then provides seed coatings — natural fertilizer — to make the plant grow larger so the company can sell a better-quality plant, he said.

The Institute’s mission is to serve “as a regional catalyst for economic transformation” through “applied research, advanced learning, economic development, advanced manufacturing, and conference services.”

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Crane reports for the Register & Bee. He can be reached at (434) 791-7987.

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