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domingo, 27 de noviembre 2022
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Bacteria and Fungi for Cleaner Agriculture

By: Carlos Olimpo Restrepo S. - Journalist
The Agricultural and Environmental Bacteriology group (BAYA), attached to UdeA’s Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences, leads a project that is fundamental for the country's agricultural production at a time when fears arise around the world over the lack of fertilizers, and the calls for food sovereignty are reiterated. 
Laboratory of the Agricultural and Environmental Bacteriology group
This laboratory researches the potential fertilizing and pest-control capabilities of some microorganisms in the agricultural industry. Photo: courtesy of the Agricultural and Environmental Bacteriology group (BAYA).

Although many of us associate bacteria and fungi with health problems in living beings, the truth is that science has shown that these microorganisms can also be of great help to humans and the planet in general, especially now that there is greater awareness of the need for environmentally clean production systems that do not affect ecosystems.

Based on these premises, the Agricultural and Environmental Bacteriology group –(BAYA) of the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences has been working for 10 years on the search for microscopic organisms that can be used to support traditional crops in the country, such as bananas, avocados or flowers, among others.

 "There is already a lot of research and fieldwork on this in the world, but the fact that we are doing it for tropical crops is one of the advantages we have because most of these products are developed in other countries and are focused on extensive industrial crops such as wheat and soybeans. We work on typical Colombian crops instead", noted Professor Camilo Andrés Ramírez Cuartas, director of the group.

This agricultural engineer and doctor in phytopathology —the study of plant diseases— has spent much of his professional life researching microorganisms associated with soils and plants and in the search of how to make the most of them for the benefit of human beings. This is one of the reasons why he has led research with other professors and students in related areas.

"We have always looked for strategies to turn this knowledge we are acquiring, the skills we are developing into products with potential for commercialization (...). The offers are for pest and disease control and fertilization solutions", he noted.

Sovereignty Is Also about Fertilizers  

Colombia is a country with a historic agricultural vocation and great export potential for traditional crops such as coffee, bananas, flowers and, in recent years, avocado and other fruits. Domestic industries have prospered around them to strengthen them, but there is a great dependence on imported products such as urea, diammonium phosphate, monoammonium phosphate and potassium chloride, which are essential chemicals to produce fertilizers.

According to figures from the Ministry of Agriculture, Colombia imports 75% of its fertilizers. In the case of urea alone, one of the most used chemicals in this sector, 42% was imported from Russia and Ukraine, countries at war, until the beginning of this year.

That is why the research and developments carried out by BAYA and the company Inbacter —a start-up created by some members of the group— are important. They are focused on microorganisms that help in the proper nutrition of plants.

"They are biofertilizing bacteria that can produce micro-hormones, solubilize some minerals and make symbiotic associations with plants, as is the case of nitrogen fixers", explained Ramírez Cuartas.

In the case of nitrogen fixers, the company has both the symbiotic type —for leguminous plants— and the asymbiotic type, for non-leguminous plants. Phosphorus and other nutrient solubilizers are offered, as well as root production stimulators.

Bacteria of the genera bacillus spp and pseudomonas spp. stand out here. Bacillus spp. bacteria are the most popular in the bio-input industry. Both microorganisms are used as bioinsecticides, biofungicides and nematicides —destroyers of microscopic worms that attack roots— and are part of Inbacter's offer.

The use of bacteriophages to control diseases such as banana Moko and those that attack ornamental plant bulbs stands out. Bacteriophages are viruses that eat bacteria. This is a very new line of research in Colombia.

 "There is a supply of commercial fungi. There is agribusiness that produces its own fungi in the country, but not on a small scale. That is why Inbacter designed a work platform so that more farmers can set up their own production of beneficial fungi with our microbiological support", said the researcher.

 He added that the BAYA group also diagnoses crop diseases in samples sent by farmers for analysis.

 Camilo Andrés Ramírez Cuartas emphasized that they are all clean or green products. "They are not chemically synthesized. They are based on an organism or a component of a microorganism that exists in nature, and they are not genetically modified, although this involves intensive and intelligent selection processes to be able to find these organisms among the thousands and millions of actions in nature".

Researcher of the BAYA group
The BAYA group's research led to the creation of a technology company that, in the medium term, may become another spin-off of Universidad de Antioquia. Photo: courtesy of the Agricultural and Environmental Bacteriology group (BAYA). 

A Company on The Rise  

Inbacter SAS is currently a start-up, that is, an emerging company. It was created two years ago as a consequence of Statute 1838 of 2017, which encourages the creation of technology-based companies. The company’s aim was to be associated with the Universidad de Antioquia as a spin-off, which can generate income for the University, the BAYA group and its partners.

Claudia Patricia Nohavá Bravo, director of UdeA’s Center for Agrobiotechnological Development of Innovation and Territorial Integration (CEDAIT), highlighted that the group "has defined an effective bet on knowledge transfer, therefore, it has ventured into the world of entrepreneurship and has given life to the biotechnology-based company Inbacter as a platform that provides a real environment to validate research results and accelerate the technological developments of the research group in line with market demands".

 "It is there where CEDAIT finds expeditious vehicles to promote knowledge transfer mechanisms and facilitate its appropriation by society", said the director, who recalled that the company's base is the BAYA group, which, in turn, is a member of the Center's scientific committee. This is crucial since it is there that "the orientation and projection of research and agricultural outreach, which will drive this innovation platform, are defined".

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