Why Tiny Microbes Mean Big Things for Farming
The soil-dwelling bacteria that we walk on every day are working their way into technologies that could help feed the world.
On a frigid day last February, Maren Friesen drove eight hours across snow-covered plains to Centralia, Pennsylvania. A fire ignited a seam of coal below the town in 1962, and more than 50 years later it's still smoldering away underground. The place is a steaming wasteland—one that may hold a key to feeding the world.
Friesen, a microbiologist, is on a hunt for a microbe thought to live in these strange, hot soils. The humble bacterium has an unusual ability that may help farmers grow more crops.
More than a decade ago, German scientists described the elusive bacterium, known as Streptomyces thermoautotrophicus, which has a special knack for converting nitrogen from the air to a form that plants can use—even