A strange observation led to an innovative discovery and the top prize of Google’s 2014 Science Fair.
While 16-year-old Emer Hickey of County Cork, Ireland was helping her mother in the garden, she saw wart-like growths on a pea plant.
She wanted to know what they were.
She learned that they were bacteria called rhizobia that act to convert nitrogen in the air to nourish the plant on which they take up residence.
Experimenting, Emer and two friends tried putting together rhizobia with barley. They found that the seeds germinated fifty percent faster than those without. The yield from germinated oat and barley seeds was as much as seventy percent greater. The three felt that this result has implications for increased yield and food production to counteract food shortages around the world.
The chemical reason is this: bacteria are attracted to the flavonoids in the plant. When they attach to the plant and start eating, they induce the plant to grow.
The greater yield experienced in the research findings of the trio means not only more food, as they state in their Science Fair proposal:
“Such a cereal crop performance improvement could significantly assist combating the growing global food poverty challenge and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture by reducing fertilizer use.” 
Fewer chemical fertilizers are a good thing.
There is grave concern over the apparent food shortages that occur in different areas of the world. We don’t feel it in North America but multitudes in other places do.
Innovations in food production are always welcome and creativity is a necessary part of the process. One indoor lettuce farm in Japan has used state-of-the art hydroponic technology to enable it to produce ten thousand mature heads of lettuce a day.
Alternatively, genetically-modified seeds were touted as being able to provide higher crop yields but this has turned out to be a fallacy. Using Nature’s own ability to help herself and find ways to make things grow (consider the grass and weeds that grow in cracks in the sidewalk, no matter what you do to eradicate them) is a much healthier, sustainable, and, well, natural way to grow food. Working with Nature rather than against her.
The world’s population continues to rise, with an estimated increase to nine billion people expected by 2050. The issues with feeding the thirteen percent of those living on the planet who don’t regularly get enough to eat are complex.
With population growth comes the additional challenge of dwindling natural resources with which to meet food needs. Governments, scientists, universities, and food producers take this challenge very seriously; conferences and scientific studies all over the globe take place to address the current and foreseeable food shortages.
The three Irish girls received the Grand Prize for the Science Fair: scholarships, a grant for their high school, and a trip to the Galápagos Islands. They have two fields set up to continue their seed research at home.