Important Soil Microbe Biome Link Studied for Significant Pest Control
…3…2…1…Blast Off!! A nematode named Steinernema feltiae – a.k.a. AstroNematode – just spent the past month aboard the International Space Station. Scientists hope the data collected on these creatures when exposed to the extreme microgravity environment will help us learn more about these useful pest control agents.
Nematodes are microscopic worms that perform a critical function in our soil’s microbe biome – and in SYMSOIL® Robust Compost (insert shopping cart link). Different kinds of these animals do important jobs in soil like excreting nitrogen for plants and controlling plant pests. In fact, one company, Pheronym, has developed a treatment to supercharge and increase nematodes effectiveness by 3x. The treatment, a non-toxic nematode pheromone, is added to the nematodes before they are applied to crops. Recently, Pheronym and the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) partnered with NASA to learn even more about these useful creatures by sending a batch to the International Space Station.
How AstroNematode works on earth
AstroNematode is a type of entomopathogenic nematode – EPN for short. EPNs work by entering an insect pest through a natural opening – an area of vulnerability. Once inside, the EPN releases special bacteria it carries within its gut. These bacteria are what actually attack and kill the insect. Both the EPN and bacteria feast on the dead insect, and valuable crops are protected – everyone wins! Except, of course, the insect pest.
What does AstroNematode do in space?
Now that’s the question. Studying an organism on the space station has a chance of revealing new ways it can respond to its environment because it’s facing something it’s never seen before – microgravity. Normally, in soil, these worms tunnel and target to devour insect pests like fungus gnats and thrips. The nematodes respond to pheromones molecules that they themselves produce. On the space station, the nematodes and prey started at opposite ends of a sealed tube with sand in between. The scientists want to understand:
- Can AstroNematodes still move through soil and find its prey in microgravity?
- Will AstroNematodes produce the same kinds of pheromones as they do on earth?
- Will AstroNematodes’ insect-killing bacteria still work properly?
Back on earth, scientists at Pheronym and USDA-ARS set up other tubes with nematodes or prey, and soil to run at the same time to compare.
The Future of AstroNematode
Information from this experiment can be used on earth to improve formulations of AstroNematode and pheromones applied to crops as pest control. Looking even further in the future, these experiments are the first steps toward developing effective agricultural pest control in space – to allow humans to grow food on a space station, on the moon, or even on Mars.
SymSoil Inc., a Benefit Corporation (B), is a leader in development of biological soil amendments for agriculture that restores the microbes that provide the right food to the plant roots, improving plant health, and making food more tasty and nutrient dense, the way nature intended. SymSoil has products and services for growers using regenerative agriculture methodologies which improve profitability.
SymSoil® RC is our flagship product. Robust Compost is a complex community of soil microbes, which includes in excess of 1,000 species, covering broad biodiversity of bacteria, fungi, amoebae, and other protozoa, beneficial nematodes and microarthropods. SymSoil was named one of 2019’s AgTech Companies to Watch.
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