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Irish teens win Google science fair with bacteria-enhanced plant growth

Irish 16-year-olds Ciara Judge, Sophie Healy-Thow and Emer Hickey won Google’s 2014 Science Fair with their project “Combating the Global Food Crisis: Diazotroph Bacteria as a cereal crop growth promoter.”

Three 16-year-old high school girls hailing from Ireland claimed the top prize for Google’s 2014 Science Fair with a project that aims to solve the food crisis — with the help of bacteria.

The teenagers, Ciara Judge, Sophie Healy-Thow and Emer Hickey, found that by infecting crops with a certain type of bacteria, the plants would grow more quickly and therefore be able to yield more food. The bacteria, known as rhizobia, prove beneficial to the plants by converting nitrogen in the air into ammonia, which aids in the plants’ development.

After 11 months testing more than 10,000 seeds, the three found that exposing the seeds to the bacteria halved the time for the plants’ germination, or process in which the plant grows from the seed.

From the Google Science Fair page, the young microbiologists described their project:

We investigated the use of diazotroph bacteria as a cereal crop germination and growth aid. Using naturally occurring Rhizobium strains of the Diazotroph bacteria family, we carried out an extensive study of their impact on the germination rate and subsequent growth of the cereal crops wheat, oats and barley. Detailed statistical analysis of our results indicated that these bacterial strains accelerated crop germination by up to 50%, and increased barley yields by 74%. Such a cereal crop performance improvement could significantly assist combatting the growing global food poverty challenge and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture by reducing fertilizer use.

Taking the top prize from the science fair awarded each of the girls, according to Google, “a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands with National Geographic Expeditions, an incredible experience at the Virgin Galactic Spaceport and $50,000 in scholarship funding.”

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