We are not alone

A healthy microbiome is critical to plant, animal, and human success

Microbiomes in Agriculture and Health

Our developing understanding of the human microbiome – the communities of microbes found in and on humans – is revolutionizing our approach to nutrition and disease. Similarly, research on agriculture microbiomes seeks to harness the microbial communities of plants, soils, and animals to enhance agricultural productivity. This is achieved by understanding the structure and function of microbiomes and using that knowledge to engineer microbiomes with enhanced functions, such as increased drought tolerance. The potential to understand and manipulate microbiomes was untapped until recently because most of the microbiome was inaccessible by traditional methods. However, recent advances in genome sequencing have made it possible to study entire microbiomes rapidly and inexpensively, creating a platform for innovation through the discovery of microbes with desirable traits.

Major advances are expected from research on microbiomes of the gut and the plant root system, as these are the locations of nutrient acquisition. In particular, research on microbiomes at the soil-root interface can address 21st century challenges in crop production and food security.  Food production must double in the coming decades; yet, water resources are becoming more scarce, farmland is shrinking, energy costs are rising, and extreme weather events are becoming more common. The fertilizers that revolutionized intensive crop production in the 20th century are damaging the environment. The next revolution must be therefore be based on a sustainable approach that harnesses plant microbiomes to increase water- and nutrient-use efficiency, stress tolerance, disease resistance, and crop yield.

Microbiomes in agriculture and human health is a growing research area in the department. Dr. Samiran Banerjee, who studies microbial communities at the soil-root interface, joined our faculty in September 2019, and we are currently searching for two more faculty who to focus on microbiomes livestock and crop production. These positions will add to ongoing microbiome research in the department.

Microbiomes in Crop Resistance


Dr. Peter Bergholz and Dr. Samiran Banerjee in collaboration withDr. Audrey Kaliland Dr. James Staricka at Williston REC are studying the role of crop microbiomes in disease resistance and drought tolerance in Western North Dakota.

North Dakota ranked # 5 in the nation in the production of grains and peas in 2017.  Under the dry climate of western ND, wheat yield is nearly 20 bu/ac lower compared to the east.  No-till cultivation with crop rotation (vs. fallowing) tends to improve soil fertility and to change soil nutrient dynamics.  Root exudates from more diverse rotations of crops may contain a range of organic matter and, hence, increase the diversity of the rhizosphere microbiome that plays a key role in host plant nutrition.  Pulse crops are an ideal component of rotations in semi-arid regions because they require less water and may favor biological N-fixation.  Diversified crop rotations have also shown promise in controlling pulse root rot and wheat diseases. Thus, we seek to enable growers to reap the benefits of crop rotations that include pulses.  This study aims to determine the responses of the soil microbiome to conservation agricultural practices to sustain agriculture in semi-arid regions.  The study is based on a long-term field trial to test the effects of various crop rotations on yield and plant disease incidence.

Study Objectives

  • Test for changes in soil microbiome diversity with increased diversity of crop rotations
  • Test for associations between microbial functional gene composition and incidence of pulse and wheat diseases
  • Assess microbiome responsiveness to drought conditions in microcosm experiments

The Gut-Brain-Microbiome Axis


Research is uncovering fascinating bidirectional communication between the gut microbiome and the central nervous system along the gut-brain axis. In one direction, the central nervous system can influence the composition and function of the gut microbiome.  In the opposite direction, the gut microbiome interacts with the central nervous system through various mechanisms, including immune and endocrine pathways. There is increasing evidence that a dysfunctional relationship between the gut microbiome and central nervous system is associated with several disease conditions, including obesity, psychiatric and neurologic disorders, and chronic intestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.

The Pruess Lab is interested in the response of one intestinal bacterium, E. coli, towards a group of hormonal neurotransmitters that are referred to as trace amines because their concentration in the gut is lower than that of the biogenic amines, such as dopamine or nor-epinephrine. Their impact on E. coli physiology is also less investigated. A particular emphasis is placed on chemotaxis, the ability of bacteria to move towards or away from certain chemicals. Latest research has identified beta-phenylethylamine as a novel chemoattractant for E. coli.

The Dorsam Lab is investigating the role of a neuropeptide, Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide (VIP), in determining microbiome composition. Using a mouse model, they have shown that a deficiency in VIP leads to dysbiosis in the gut microbiome.

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