16-Year-Olds Win Google Science Fair With a Simple but Brilliant Food Hack
Irish high school student Émer Hickey was gardening with her mom when she observed wartlike nodules on a pea plant. She later learned that the swellings contained something that could cut back our dependence on chemical fertilizers and mitigate world hunger: bacteria.
But not just any bacteria.
Hickey and fellow 16-year-olds Ciara Judge and Sophie Healy-Thow, all from Cork County, Ireland, experimented with the microbes, called rhizobia, to speed up the germination process in seeds in a project that won them the 2014 Google Science Fair this week. The students found that when the seeds were treated with the bacteria, their yield increased.
The teens began the project as they learned about the global food crisis in geography class.
“We became really interested in what this bacteria can do and what people haven’t done with it so far,” Healy-Thow told Scientific American.
The trick of using microbes for larger yields has long been used in agriculture.
“The bacteria act as an early warning system for the plants, kickstarting growth,” National Geographic explains. “When the microbes sense the presence of compounds called flavonoids on plants, they begin to build nodules, swellings on roots that house bacteria able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into forms the plant can consume. The presence of the nodules then tells the plants it’s time to grow faster.”
The teens, however, were told that the microbes wouldn’t have an effect on cereal crops. They did. They treated seeds with the bacteria and found that the seeds germinated 50 percent faster. They also increased the yield of barley and oats by as much as 70 percent.
“Such a cereal crop performance improvement could significantly assist combating the growing global food poverty challenge and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture by reducing fertilizer use,” the trio wrote in their winning proposal.
Hickey, Judge, and Healy-Thow received scholarships, a grant for their high school, and a trip to the Galápagos Islands. They plan to keep their project going, including by studying “what’s happening inside the seeds.”