Plants are home to a repertoire of microorganisms whose ecological interactions could improve their functions and plant performance. 

Plant microbiomes can help increase primary productivity in a nature-based approach to meet the ever-increasing need to feed the populace. The potential microbial interactions at the soil-plant interface are explored mainly, but the underlying mechanisms remain elusive. Integrating biotechnology with traditional agricultural practices is becoming increasingly important for sustainable agriculture in the era of climate change. Microorganisms or microbial products are becoming more salient in sustainable agriculture as they are identified, understood, and used to manage plant disease and improve crop productivity.

Olubukola Babalola 3x3

Our current research examines the interplay between plants and the plant growth-promoting rhizobiome in plant health management using high throughput sequencing and understanding the primary biotic and abiotic variables that influence the crop microbiome in field applications. We focus on research areas that extend the knowledge of rhizosphere microbiology, especially in integrating beneficial microbiomes into agricultural production, such as those that improve plant growth, nutrient usage efficiency, abiotic (drought) stress tolerance, and disease resistance for sustainable food production to meet the UN SD2: Zero Hunger objective. We are using food crops, such as maize, and energy crops, such as soybeans and sunflower, as model crops for our studies.

The composition of maize- and soybean-associated microbial communities and their metabolic interactions with the plants have been studied. Metagenome sequencing has profiled the functional prediction of communities connected with the root (rhizosphere) and those found inside distinct plant tissues (endosphere). Comprehensive transcriptome sequencing is presently underway to help us understand the genes expressed at different stages of growth and their role in growth promotion and biotic and abiotic stress tolerance. We will also examine individual endophytic and rhizospheric microbes by single-cell sequencing. Molecular pathways that are linked explicitly to environmental stress will be identified in each organism. These investigations aim to identify and characterize beneficial plant-symbiotic microorganisms using high throughput sequencing methods, which will aid in developing solutions for crop protection and productivity in the era of climate change.

With the impact of climate already reducing productivity and disease severity, microbial biocontrol can potentially control agricultural diseases with little or no negative environmental impact. Such control is modifying microbial populations through cultural, physical, or biological processes, including plant mechanisms. We use bacterial species, such as Bacillus and Pseudomonas, to control the fungal disease of maize caused by Fusarium, which causes devastating loss in the field. We used both in vivo and molecular techniques to understand the underlying mechanisms of action employed by these organisms in reducing the impact of fusarioris on the field.

My team focuses on this crucial area to control pests and diseases for sustainable food production. We are developing a stable synthetic community as a biocontrol agent for the control of fusariosis. Other benefits of these organisms that my team is looking at are developing biopesticides and bioherbicides for controlling pests and herbicides through continuous improvement of strains we produce for desired traits.