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"Pass Protection" -- The Discovery Files

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Those who crave brownies or hot cocoa may be happy to hear that heroes too small to be seen may help to protect the world's chocolate supply. Scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama found that exposing baby cacao plants to microbes from healthy adult cacao plants reduced the plant's chance of becoming infected with the serious cacao pathogen, Phytopthora palmivora, by half.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Leafing a legacy.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: fanfare) Chocolate lovers rejoice! The world's chocolate supply just got a big kiss from scientists at The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. The team discovered a key to better survival of baby cacao plants is in the leaves that healthy parents drop: protective microbes that get passed on to the kiddos.

If that sounds familiar, evidence shows human mothers pass on immune-system-strengthening microbes to their babies as the infant passes through the birth canal. With cacao -- and possibly other plant species -- the delivery vehicle for these beneficial good guys becomes the leaves that fall to the forest floor where their offspring grow.

(Sound effect: rainforest sounds) The study found one of the most common fungi present on the leaves, was also its protector. When infected with a deadly pathogen, cacao seedlings grown with fallen leaves from healthy adults showed half the damage of babies grown with a mixture of leaves from the forest floor, a finding that could help reduce cacao crop losses worldwide.

The team says for the first time we're beginning to understand how microbial communities assemble in leaves and what may influence their ability to protect plants.

(Sound effect: as Forest Gump) My mama said, "Life is like a leaf of microbes."

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