Evaluation of diazotrophic bacteria as biofertilizers.
Inoculation with diazotrophic bacteria is well documented as a means to enhance growth and increase yields of various crops, especially when used as an alternative or a supplement to the use of nitrogenous fertilizers and agrochemicals for sustainable agriculture. Nitrogen is the most limiting nutrient for increasing crop productivity, and the use of chemical sources of N fertilizers is expensive, and may contribute to environmental pollution. Therefore, there is a need to identify diazotrophic inoculants as an alternative or supplement to N-fertilizers for sustainable agriculture. The search for effective diazotrophic bacterial strains for formulation as biofertilizers has been going on for over 40 years and a number of inoculant biofertilizers have been developed and are commercially available. In the current study, 195 free-living diazotrophic bacteria were isolated from soils collected from the rhizosphere and leaves of different crops in different areas within the KwaZulu-Natal Province, Republic of South Africa. Ninety five of the isolates were selected for further screening because they were able to grow on N-free media using different carbon sources. Isolates that were very slow to grow on N-free media were discarded. Of these, 95 isolates were screened in vitro for growth promotion traits tests including tests for ammonia production and acetylene reduction. The best 20 isolates that were also able to reduce acetylene into ethylene were selected for growth-promotion trials on maize under greenhouse conditions. Of the 20 isolates, ten isolates enhanced (P = 0.001) growth of maize above the Un-inoculated Control. Molecular tests were conducted to identify the ten most promising isolates selected in the in vitro study. In the greenhouse study, these diazotrophic isolates were screened for their ability to enhance various growth parameters of maize (Zea mays L.), following various inoculation techniques (drenching, seed treatment, foliar spray and combination of these). Inoculations with the five best diazotrophic isolates by various methods of application increased dry weight and leaf chlorophyll content (P < 0.001, P = 0.001), respectively, compared to the Untreated Control. Although, all methods of application of diazotrophic inoculants used in this study resulted in increased dry weight and leaf chlorophyll content, combined methods of application (seed treatment + drenching) and sole application (seed treatment) were significantly more (P < 0.05) efficient. The best five most promising isolates were identified for growth promotion of maize under greenhouse conditions. They were also assessed for their effects on germination of wheat in vitro and were further tested in combination with various levels of nitrogenous fertilizer for growth-promotion of wheat (Triticum aestivum L.). These five isolates were also investigated for their potential to enhance growth and yields of maize and wheat crops in field trials, when combined with a low dose of nitrogenous fertilizer. These isolates were further studied for their contribution for enhancing plant growth through nitrogen fixation by predicting N content in leaves using a chlorophyll content meter (CCM-200) and correlated to extractable chlorophyll level at R2 = 0.96. In this study, relative to the Un-inoculated Control, the best five isolates enhanced growth of maize and wheat when combined with a 33% N-fertilizer levels for a number of growth parameters: increased chlorophyll levels and heights of maize, shoot dry weight of maize and wheat; and enhanced root and shoot development of these crops in both greenhouse and field conditions. The best contributions of diazotrophic bacteria was achieved by Isolate LB5 + 0% NPK (41%), V9 + 65% NPK (28.9%), Isolate L1 + 50% NPK (25%), Isolate L1 + 25%NPK (22%) and LB5 + 75% NPK (15%) undergreenhouse conditions. At 30 or 60 DAP, isolates with 33%N-fertilizer caused relatively higher dry weight than the 100%NPK. Inoculation of Isolate StB5 without 33N% fertilizer cuased significant (P<0.005) increases in stover dry weight. In field studies, inoculation of diazotrophic bacteria alone or with 33%N-fertilizer resulted in relatively greater increases of dry weight, stover dry weight, number of spikes and yield at different growth stages higher than the Un-inoculated or Unfertilized Control. However, the increases were not statistically significant. The use of microbial inoculants in combination with low doses of nitrogenous fertilizers can enhance crop production without compromising yields. The isolates obtained in this study can effectively fix nitrogen and enhance plant growth. The use of microbial inoculants can contribute to the integrated production of cereal crops with reduced nitrogenous fertilizer inputs, as a key component of sustainable agriculture.