IRVINE, California — The Google Science Fair is an annual event that provides students from around the world the opportunity to share and exhibit their ambitious scientific ideas that can potentially shape the future. At the age of 16, Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Throw decided to tackle one of the world’s leading issues: world hunger. Their potential solution: a single, naturally occurring bacterium.
According to The Hunger Project, approximately 75 percent of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Population growth and elongated droughts have resulted in massive food shortages in many developing countries. In countries with damp climates, many seeds that are planted rot before they can even begin to grow.
The team of young women discovered a particular strain of bacterium that could be used to reduce this rot and lead to higher crop production.
“We investigated the use of diazotroph bacteria as a cereal crop germination and growth aid,” reported one of the bright teens. Though it sounds complicated, the idea is a fairly simple concept. The team tested over 10,000 seeds when Hickey noticed odd nodules on the roots of her plants and brought them to her classroom. Their science teacher educated them on the relationship between Rhizobium and legumes and the significant role nitrogen plays with regard to growing plants.
Curiosity struck their young minds as they wondered if the same process could be stimulated with other plants. They found that when the seeds were treated with the bacteria, crop germination accelerated up to 50 percent and resulted in a 74 percent increase in food production.
Analysts predict a period of volatile food prices over the next decade, which could produce food instability in many developing countries. Such improvement in crop performance could contribute to successfully battling global hunger and could become a valuable environmental resource tool by reducing the use of fertilizer.
With the global population projected to increase to roughly 9.5 billion in 2050, every country on the planet will need to increase productivity in agriculture. The lack of education and medical resources, such as contraceptives, in developing countries remain a major factor in poverty-stricken areas. Populations in Africa and India are projected to make up a greater share of the global population by 2050. Malnutrition in children from areas with severe poverty is the root cause to high mortality rates in the developing world.
Growing more crops efficiently and more quickly could impact food nutrition in these developing countries and around the world. These young ladies have found a way to use a natural scientific process to grow more food.
The teens did not go home empty handed, either, as they were announced the grand prizewinners of Google’s fourth annual science fair. Along with the 50,000 dollars in scholarship funding, the team will receive a 10-day National Geographic Expedition in the Galapagos Islands and a chance to experience the Virgin Galactic Spaceport. And while the team of young women took home the grand prize, other dedicated youths attempted to tackle other global issues, including confronting air pollution and cleaning and reducing waste.
– Sandy Phan