RNA-Seq demystifies the complicated genome interactions that allows biostimulants to promote plant health

from the Western Producer by

The global market for biostimulants is expected to be worth US$2.8 billion within four years, spurred on by farmers’ desire to improve yields and environmental calls for improved sustainability.
 These products contain substances or micro-organisms that stimulate natural processes in a plant to promote improved nutrient uptake and efficiency as well as tolerance to stress. 
Many crop input companies are eager to get a piece of this growing market and have ramped up their research and development budgets for biostimulant based products. 
Companies are also less hesitant to invest in developing biostimulants because the cloud of scientific skepticism over their usefulness has been lifting over the past decade and it’s now possible to understand how some of these products actually affect plants.

While the utility of some biostimulants has been proven scientifically, many growers remain skeptical of the agronomic claims.
 This is because companies in Canada do not have to meet a high threshold of proof that the products actually work. 
 However, companies with a robust research and development focus are finding a path to Canadian fields for their biostimulant products.

Dan Owen, who is part of the ATP Nutrition research and development team that brings new biostimulants to market, said growers should take a close look at the science behind any biostimulant product before trusting it.  During a presentation at the Farm Forum Event in Calgary, Owen described the process that ATP Nutrition follows when bringing its biostimulants to market.

The first stage is an initial study with a treated and untreated check to see if there is any benefit. 
“The second stage we go through after the initial checks is we go to a rate study. So now what we are looking at is, we’ve taken this product and, can we get it to a rate that is going to be commercially viable,” Owen said. 
Then it studies the product using growth chamber testing. 
“We are growing root and shoot tissue that we can send away so that we can actually RNA sequence the active ingredient,” he said.

“Because what we really want to know is, how does it work, how is it working in the plant, what gene sequences is it turning on or turning off or up regulating or down regulating. Because these are the things that are going to be the benefit from that bio stimulator product.”

Determining the active ingredient and how it affects plants requires a genetics research lab.

ATP Nutrition uses the Belmonte lab at the University of Manitoba to perform RNA sequencing, including complicated computations of data to understand an ingredient’s mode of action. 
Mark Belmonte, who heads up the lab, said a biostimulant’s effect on crops is extremely complicated.

“Traditionally people thought it was only a single gene or a few genes that might be contributing to the mode of action (of a biostimulant), but what we’re finding is that it is literally hundreds if not thousands of genes that’s responsible for the mode of action, and it’s all of these genes that are operating together that are communicating with one another in order to respond or in order to allow for that plant to respond to the product,” he said.

Belmonte primarily uses genomic technologies to help understand and improve canola genetics for major seed companies, but he also uses RNA sequencing to demystify the complicated genome interactions that allows biostimulants to promote plant health. 
“What we do in the lab is we try to identify all of the genes that are required for a given trait,” he said.
 “And so, to be able to answer that question and be able to get to that point, we have to essentially sequence what’s called the transcriptome. 
 “We have to sequence all of the messages that are found within the plant or found within a given population of cells. That’s where the RNA sequencing comes.”
 Plants are placed under specific agronomic conditions in the growth chambers and examined to see exactly how a biostimulant affects genetic response in the root and shoot tissues.
 “Using some pretty complex computational biology tools, we’re able to better understand which genes are being turned on, when they are being turned on and how they are being turned on,” Belmonte said.
 RNA sequencing technology has become commercially available to crop input companies only in the past five to 10 years, and Belmonte said the technology is moving very quickly.

However, it must still jump the hurdle of finding more efficient ways to manage the massive amount of data generated by the experiments to make it meaningful. 

“When we do these experiments, we’re generating billions of data points,” Belmonte said. 
 “So what I did last year is I hired some computer science students in order to develop some computational programs in order to analyze and streamline the data analysis pipeline so that people, let’s say in high school, could come in and plug in some data and start analyzing and breaking down those billions of data points into something that has biological meaning,” Belmonte said.

RNA sequencing will become increasingly available for crop input companies to help them develop and understand their products. This will undoubtedly increase the quality of the biostimulants offered to growers. 
 In the meantime, Owen said skeptical growers should ask the company what the active ingredient is and how it works.
 “If they can explain those things to you, that means they have spent a lot of time, a lot of research into this market,” Owen said.

Source – the Western Producer

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