In pursuit of global food security

KAUST research scientist Dr. Maged Saad and his colleagues in the University's Desert Agriculture Initiative study how to provide global food security for the future. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

By Abdullah Alhamdan, KAUST News

Dr. Maged Saad, a research scientist in the KAUST Desert Agriculture Initiative, part of the University's Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering division, focuses his work on developing unconventional ways to provide global food security.

"Despite the remarkable progress achieved by humanity in most areas of science and technology, many people on this earth still face starvation and poverty," he explained. "Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) announced that the number of hungry people in the world has increased by 38 million—partly due to climate change—which led to a loss of approximately 60 percent of total crop productivity."

Saad, a leading researcher in the team of KAUST Professor Heribert Hirt, works on three main areas: microbial genetics; bacterial adaptation to different environmental conditions; and the relationship between microorganisms and organisms—in particular the relationship between bacteria, plants and the molecular dialogs between them.

KAUST research scientist Dr. Maged Saad is pictured here at work in the KAUST lab. Image courtesy of Maged Saad.

Rhizospheres and their effect on plants

After obtaining his bachelor's and master's degrees in biochemistry from Ain Shams University in Egypt, Saad received a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Geneva in Switzerland. He then carried out postdoctoral studies in Germany, the U.K., France and Switzerland, and chose to come to KAUST based on the ability to apply his "scientific and practical research in the field of agriculture [at the University]," he said.

"The rhizosphere is the narrow region of soil that is directly influenced by root secretions and where soil microorganisms grow," Saad explained. "Microbes play a positive role in plant life cycles by dissolving and processing the mineral elements of plants and increasing their immunity against bacteria and pathogenic fungi. Research has shown that the rhizosphere region is rich in microbial diversity.

"We identified and isolated Enterobacter sp. SA187—a strain of rhizosphere bacteria that lives in the root nodules of Indigofera argentea, an indigenous desert plant of the Arabian Peninsula. We found that using these bacteria in desert agriculture increases the yield of field crops. This use of rhizospheres is a new revolution in safe agriculture; it is inexpensive, environmentally friendly and will help poor farmers around the world to improve the productivity of their crops."

KAUST researchers like Dr. Maged Saad hope their work on desert plants will increase agricultural production through the use of selected strains of bacteria. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Solutions and research

Over the last four years, Hirt collected in a research effort called the DARWIN21 project bacterial strains from the roots of various desert plants in the Arabian Peninsula and neighboring countries in the Middle East. The research team now possesses the largest specialized bacterial library from desert plants of more than 2,500 different strains. This library may provide solutions to improve the growth and yield of plants grown under desert agriculture conditions and also promises to lead to the identification of new antibiotics and metabolic pathways of industrial interest. The team identified, categorized and tested bacterial strains towards helping plants withstand stressful laboratory conditions in order to select the best for these efforts.

"We have seen some strains achieve remarkable success in increasing salt tolerance and crop productivity," Saad said.

Increasing agricultural production using selected strains of bacteria will also affect local products in a manner consistent with Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 goals.

Converting technology

To convert their technology into a product, "protecting intellectual property rights for using these strains, preparing a prototype, testing the prototype on the ground by farmers in Saudi Arabia, and finally marketing the product by establishing a startup" must be done, Saad explained.

"At the beginning of [2018], we contacted several agricultural companies in the Kingdom to inquire about requirements and problems faced by Saudi farms in terms of water, soil and seasonal plant diseases. KAUST signed an agreement with one of these companies to perform several field experiments with some strains on a few crops at the company's farms," he noted.

"As researchers, we are always driven by our curiosity; test results give us answers—positive and negative. This may be an endless journey, but it always leads to more questions, which in turn expands our search for answers," Saad said.