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These Teenagers’ Discovery Could Revolutionize Global Crop Production

How two students figured out how natural bacteria aids crop growth, and why this is great news for our farming future.

by Gareth May
Oct 6 2016, 2:00pm

Ciara Judge and Émer Hickey aren't your typical teenagers. While most of us spent our teen years swigging cider in moonlit parks, the two students from Kinsale Community School in Cork were helping to solve the global food crisis.

In 2014, the pair—along with fellow student Sophie Healy-Thow—won an award at the Google Science Fair when they presented evidence that diazotroph bacteria, a bacteria naturally found in soil, could be used as a cereal crop growth aid. Collecting analysis of over 100,000 results over a two-year period, the students proved diazotroph accelerated crop productivity by up to 50 percent.

READ MORE: Future of Food on MUNCHIES

Now, at age 19, Judge has gone on to win the BT Young Scientist and the EU Young Scientist, and in September of 2014 TIME named her one of the 25 most influential teens worldwide.

MUNCHIES caught up with the young scientists to find out how their discovery could be used to combat global food scarcity.

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Students Ciara Judge and Émer Hickey, whose research into how rhizobium bacteria can be used to aid crop growth won the 2014 Google Science Fair. Alll photos courtesy Ciara Judge and Émer Hickey.

MUNCHIES: You guys were pretty young when you won the Google Science Fair—what was that experience like? Émer Hickey: When we won the Google Science fair we were just turning 17, so I guess we were pretty young. The whole thing was pretty surreal and we definitely didn't expect to win. It was great, that at the age, we were given the opportunity to see science in action and also to meet other young scientists from all over the world.

The project you presented provided evidence that diazotroph bacteria could be used as a cereal crop growth aid. What are diazotrophs and how did you get into bacteria research? Ciara Judge: Basically, diazotroph is a family of bacteria, but we worked with rhizobium bacteria. We became interested in it when Emer was gardening with her mom and observed wart-like nodules on the roots of pea plants—and these nodules are where rhizobium bacteria is commonly found. The bacteria forms a symbiotic relationship with legumes plants, whereby it fixes nitrogen into more useful compounds to be used by the plant.

I guess after discussing it with our science teacher, one thing lead to another and we ended up embarking on a three-year-long project to see if rhizobium bacteria could aid crop germination rates and yields.

Over that time, we tested over 10,000 seeds and found an increase in germination of barley by up to 50 percent and an increase in dry mass yield [a measure of a plant's dry mass excluding water content] of up to 74 percent.

Diazotrophs are natural bacteria, right? Is this pretty important? Hickey: For us, this is an important factor. Obviously, crops form a large part of people's diets and there would be many issues and legislation with adding chemicals to increase germination rates. At least with rhizobium bacteria, it naturally occurs in the soil, so in this way, there would be no damage to health or to the environment in general.

How do diazotrophs actually increase crop productivity? And what are the implications for the agriculture industry at large? Judge: This is definitely the big question and unfortunately one that we do not have an answer to—yet. A lot further research will need to be done, on a molecular level, in order for us to find a solid explanation for our observations. Now that we are in college, we hopefully will have time for this.

Our findings, we believe, could really benefit the agriculture industry. For instance, before a seed germinates it is most vulnerable and often can rot in the soil. An increase in germination rate could definitely reduce this issue—especially for those with very wet soils [countries like Ireland].

As well as this, an increased dry mass yield could lead to an increase in food production, which, when you consider food security issues, is a very important factor.

Were you surprised by the accelerated crop germination rate of 50 percent? Judge: I reckon it was the most surprised we've ever been in our lives. We had been looking at seeds for weeks, inputting our findings in Excel sheets. When we ran our results through the statistical program, and saw the results, we nearly had to look twice.

Hickey: We weren't expecting the findings at all. In fact, when we first began the project, many commented that it wouldn't work, but we still thought we'd give it a try.

What part could diazotrophs play in the battle against the predicted food scarcity crisis of 2050? Judge: We would like to think that our findings could play a role in the battle against food scarcity crisis of 2050. We understand that our findings will not be the overall solution but the way we look at it is that even if our findings help feed only one family, it is a success.

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Germinaid Innovations, a start-up founded by Judge and Hickey to continue their research into crop growth.

Hickey: Logistically, we would have to figure out how to translate our findings into a viable product. How can we ensure the bacteria doesn't die? Do we apply as a spray? Do we coat the seeds in a treatment? These are just a few questions we will be asking over the next few years.

Another thing is often people are very wary when you mention applying bacteria to seeds. People often view bacteria as always negative and disease-causing, which is definitely not the case. Due to the fact that rhizobium bacteria is naturally occurring, this should not be an issue but there may still be stigma around it.

It's been a few years since you won the award—what has happened to the data over that time? Is the study on-going? Judge: It's exactly two years since we won the award and since then, we've been pretty busy. The year following the award, we spoke at various events promoting science. Then however, we had to head back to our school studies and put our head down for our final year. The project had to take a bit of a back seat while we finished our studies.

Hickey: Now we've finished school and have started college, Ciara and I plan to work on the project again under the name of our start-up Germinaid Innovations, a research company we set up last year together after the Google Science Fair, when we realized that we were both interested in continuing to do work together to try fight the global food crisis.

READ MORE: Why GMOs Might Not Be Such a Bad Thing After All

Judge: At the moment, the project is still very much research-based, but in the future, we may be able to produce a viable product. It's important to note though, that our work is completely open-source. For us, this whole process is not about making money, and we are definitely open to collaborations.

Do you think older generations care as much about the threat of food scarcity as the younger scientific community? Judge: Honestly, I think this is a global issue that everyone should be worried about. The reality is that while we in the developed world may not feel the effects of the food crisis until a few more years from now, it's already happening. Areas in Africa and around the equator are already being hit by drought and famine, and putting food on the table is an immediate issue for the inhabitants of these areas, not one they will have to face 30 years from now.

Thanks for your time, guys.

Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.