AgResearch explores inner space to unlock clover secrets

A new AgResearch project is exploring inner space to unlock the secrets of one of our most important pasture plants.

​The new project is aiming to describe and characterise all of the microorganisms that live inside the roots of white clover, the key forage plant upon which our pastoral economy relies. The two-year, $1 million programme has been funded in the latest Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment science funding round.

The project is being led by AgResearch scientists Dr Nigel Bell and Dr Damien Fleetwood. Dr Fleetwood says that the team will use a range of methods to ensure they describe the largest amount of microbes possible and also select for beneficial organisms that they hope can be utilised in agricultural settings.

“In real world ecosystems no plant lives alone. From our forests to our pastures, plants are teeming with microbial life. Unseen bacteria and fungi live in, on and around plants,” he says.

“Some microbes are detrimental to their host plant’s health, probably most are neutral, but some of these myriad microorganisms benefit their hosts by protecting against diseases, pests and other stresses like drought.

“We are starting to realise the extent of interactions between plants and microbes, especially in model plants and natural ecosystems, but as yet we don’t know anything about the extent or nature of what is likely to be a very large microbial community co-existing within perennial agricultural pasture plants.”

One of the main targets of the work is to identify bacteria or fungi that can be used to control grass grub and/or pasture nematode pests. These pests cause many millions of dollars in losses to the economy every year through lost productivity and persistence of white clover.

“We believe it will be possible to identify bacterial or fungal species that can be delivered with white clover seed and live inside the plant roots, deterring these pests and reducing the need for expensive pesticide use,” says Dr Fleetwood.

“This would be a step-change in the way that these pests are controlled to the benefit of both farmers and society.”