New bacteria to boost sustainable sugarcane farming

20 Dec 2013

University of Queensland researchers have discovered a new species of bacterium that could potentially reduce the need for nitrogen fertiliser in cane farming.

Lead researcher Dr Chanyarat Paungfoo-Lonhienne, from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), School of Agriculture and Food Science (SAFS) and Australian Centre for Ecogenomics (ACE), said current nitrogen fertilisers are expensive and their run-off could damage the environment.

“One way to overcome the problems associated with nitrogen fertilisers is to supplement them with bacteria as a biofertiliser,” Dr Paungfoo-Lonhienne said.

“Bacteria use nitrogen from the air to produce nitrogen compounds that feed plants, so the crop receives the nutrients it needs with increased sustainability and at a lower cost.

“Using bacteria as a biofertiliser in sugarcane production has had varying results to date, but we took a new approach and found a potential source in the bacteria already present around the roots of thriving sugarcane plants.”

Dr Paungfoo-Lonhienne and the UQ team examined bacteria in the soil and roots of sugarcane from two plots near Ayr in North Queensland and identified three abundant types.

They tested the ability of these bacteria to boost sugarcane growth in controlled laboratory conditions and found one that promoted plant growth.

The team sequenced the bacterium’s genome to confirm its genetic potential to turn nitrogen into plant food.

The sequence also revealed that the bacterium is a new species, which the team named Burkholderia australis.

“The process we used has identified a potential biofertiliser for Queensland sugarcane, and a useful method for developing bacterial biofertilisers that could work in other parts of the world on different varieties of sugarcane,” Dr Paungfoo-Lonhienne said.

The team’s next step is to determine methods of delivering the bacterium to the sugarcane on a larger scale and to carry out field trials.

The research was supported by the Queensland Government and conducted in collaboration with the sugar industry.

Queensland Minister for Science and Innovation, Ian Walker said the discovery could improve Queensland sugarcane yields for very little extra expense.

“Australia is the third-largest supplier of raw sugar in the world, with 95 per cent of the nation’s sugarcane grown in Queensland,” Mr Walker said.

“The Queensland Government’s investment in this research should pay dividends in the future for cane growers who are looking to farm sustainably while boosting their crop’s growth.”

The research was published in the Society for Applied Microbiology’s Microbial Biotechnology journal.

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The Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) is a research institute of The University of Queensland that aims to improve quality of life by advancing medical genomics, drug discovery and biotechnology.

Media contact: Bronwyn Adams, IMB Communications Manager – 0418 575 247, 07 3346 2134 or