New NIFA funding advances understanding of agricultural microbiomes

OSU plant and fungal ecologist Posy Busby collecting leaf samples in a common garden of poplar trees. Busby is a researcher in OSU's Department of Botany and Plant Pathology.


USDA NIFA research grant was recently awarded to expand the work of Dr. Posy Busby in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University. One of 11 Agricultural Microbiomes in Plant Systems and Natural Resources grants as part of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, Foundational and Applied Science priority areas, this new funding will help expand Busby’s research in understanding how plant microbiomes form and function. This research is being conducted in partnership with Dr. Devin Leopold, also at OSU, and Dr. Sarah Lebeis at the University of Tennessee.

The grants awarded nationally totaled $8 million, with $749,888 allocated to the team led by Busby.  This is part of NIFA’s broader stated focus on “understanding the multipartite interactions among the host, environment, and the microbiome; thereby providing information critical for improving and sustaining agricultural productivity. Research will help fill major knowledge gaps in characterizing agricultural microbiomes and microbiome functions across agricultural production systems and natural resources.”

Busby’s project focuses on a neglected area of microbiome research: yeasts on plant surfaces. These microbes are ubiquitous and have long been known to antagonize pathogens, offering potential as biocontrol agents for managing crop diseases. But according to Busby, what is not understood is whether plants can be bred to promote disease protection by yeasts. To address this, the proposed research asks how plant traits – like leaf thickness and nutrient content – impact yeast abundance and pathogen antagonism.

“If we can better understand the factors that control microbial community assembly, then we can get closer to managing plant-microbiome interactions for desired outcomes,” Busby explained. “We’re really looking to add another tool to the toolbox for managing crop health.”

The first part of the project involves some field work – outside in the open air where COVID risk is lower so research can get started immediately despite the pandemic. Here, researchers will collect diverse groups of yeast to include in a large screening effort to determine which plant traits impact yeast abundance and pathogen antagonism.

“The second part of the project focuses on microbial ecology,” Busby explained “so in addition to breeding plants for these beneficial interactions, we also ask whether intervention in the microbial community assembly process might further improve disease protection.”

The research will vary yeast arrival order under controlled conditions to test if early arrival in the community improves pathogen antagonism. This work builds upon Busby and Leopold’s recent work that seeks to understand how timing impacts the way microorganisms colonize plants.

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