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Cork students' discovery for improving crop growth could help reduce food poverty

The three students from Kinsale Community College in Cork have reached the finals of the Google Science Fair with their research into using bacteria to help improve yields of food crops.

The three students, Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow, when they won the BT Young Scientist competition in 2013.
The three students, Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow, when they won the BT Young Scientist competition in 2013.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

THREE TEENAGERS FROM Cork who have researched crop growth have been selected as finalists for a global science competition for students.

Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow from Kinsale Community College will be competing in the finals of the Google Science Fair competition next month.

The three students, who took first place in the BT Young Scientist in 2013, are in the 15-16 age category with a project that looks at improving yields of food crops and reducing losses because of adverse weather conditions.

Their project looks at a specific type of bacteria called Diazotroph and the relationship it has with non-legume plants (i.e. crops such as wheat, barley, oats that help reduce or prevent erosion, adding organic matter to the soil and repressing weeds). It investigated the use of this bacteria as a germination tool – the process of which a plant grows from a seed – for cereal crops.

Using homemade equipment, the group carried out germination and growth experiments over the course of 11 months. After analysing 9,500 seed samples and recording over 120,000 manual measurements in 125 experimental sets, they found that two strains of Rhizobium – soil bacteria that fixes nitrogen (diazotrophs) for the plant so it can grow – can accelerate the rate of seed growth.

The results showed that this bacteria helped reduce germination time by up to 50% and increased barley mass yield by up to 70%.

The group believes it could have significant potential for increasing yields of food crops, reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture by reducing fertilizer usage, and could also act as “a partial solution to the impending food poverty crisis.”

The three students aim to investigate this approach further at a trace biochemical level to understand why the use of rhizobium bacteria helped speed up the germination rate, as well as test bacteria in the presence of seeds.

The students will travel to California next month to compete at Google HQ and people can vote for their favourite projects beginning 1 September. Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony on 23 September.

Source: Ciara, Emer, Sophie/YouTube

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Quinton O'Reilly

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