Irish teenagers Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow, all 16, have won the Google Science Fair 2014. Their project, Combating the Global Food Crisis, aims to provide a solution to low crop yields by pairing a nitrogen-fixing bacteria that naturally occurs in the soil with cereal crops it does not normally associate with, such as barley and oats. The results were incredible: the girls found their test crops germinated in half the time and had a drymass yield up to 74 percent greater than usual.
All three girls love gardening. In 2011, at school, they were also studying the food crisis in the Horn of Africa and were thinking about ways they could help. One day Hickey pulled up some pea plants from her garden and brought them in to discuss strange nodules on the roots with the girls’ science teacher. Peas, like other leguminous plants, have a symbiotic relationship with diazatrophic rhizobia bacteria found in soil. This relationship leads to nitrogen fixing in the soil, which can reduce the need for added chemical fertilizers.
The girls decided to experiment with the effects of rhizobia on non-leguminous plants. After trialing over 10,000 barley and oat seeds, the results were astonishing. Two types of rhizobia in particular showed great potential for agricultural use. In their submission to the Fair the girls stated: “These results have significant potential for increasing yields of food crops and reducing losses due to adverse weather conditions. They also offer opportunities for reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture by reducing fertilizer usage. As demand for cereals increases with population growth, this discovery could act as a partial solution to the impending food poverty crisis. There is potential for future work in this area and we plan to investigate the biochemical mechanism involved and carry out more extensive field trials.”
The trio are not newcomers to scientific achievement. In 2013, they were awarded first place in a national science competition from a field of 2,000 entries. They then represented Ireland in the European Contest for Young Scientists in September 2013, where they also won first place. As the Grand Prize winners of the Google Science Fair 2014, Ciara, Émer and Sophie each receive a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands provided by National Geographic, a $50,000 scholarship from Google, a personalized LEGO prize provided by LEGO Education and the chance to participate in astronaut training at the Virgin Galactic Spaceport in the Mojave desert. You can sign up here to be notified when entries open for the Google Science Fair 2015.