A chance observation about warts on a pea plant led three friends from Kinsale, Ireland on a three-year mission to solve the world food crisis. Emer Hickey, Ciara Judge, and Sophie Healy–Thow, all 16, learned that the wart-like nodules hold beneficial bacteria known as rhizobia that produce ammonia and other compounds that help the plants grow. At the time, their class was studying the world food crisis in geography, and an idea for a science project quickly germinated. “We became really interested in what this bacteria can do and what people haven’t done with it so far,” said Healy-Thow.
Though many people told them that the bacteria would have no impact on cereal crops, the friends decided to test it on barley. They found that the microbes increased seed germination rates by 50 percent. Over the course of three years, the team has tested some 13,000 seeds and has a large controlled field site set up with another 3,600 seeds in their hometown. Hickey says the bacteria may also reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, which can harm the environment.