Microbiology in Action
Eds. W. G. Murrell and I. R. Kennedy
Dr Jim Vincent, the outstanding scientist to whom this book is dedicated, made a fleeting appearance in Australian literature as the model for the schoolteacher 'Bill Sinclair' in Kylie Tennant's prize winning 1935 novel Tiburon. This was set in a small country town where the P&C of the school wanted more emphasis on cultural studies (French and Ancient History) rather than the practical arts championed by 'Bill Sinclair'. In real life, Jim Vincent's first job after graduating from Sydney University in 1933 was to teach Agriculture at Canowindra in the central west of NSW.
The book is based on the contributions to a conference held in 1986 to honour Vincent's 75th birthday. It contains 22 chapters from 34 contributors, all of whom are either past students or colleagues of Vincent. The collection is a testament to the world-class achievements of Australian research in microbiology, and also to the impact of a fine teacher and researcher who provided inspiration and guidance for much of the work in this field over several decades. The price of the book and the technical nature of the contents will limit the market to libraries and a handful of professionals. However all teachers of biology would benefit from reading some of the papers, especially Albert Rovira's account of the ecology of the 'rhizosphere', that zone where the soil and its microflora are under the physical and chemical influence of the living plant.
In soil-plant relations, agronomy and agricultural science generally Australian researchers have defied the cultural cringe to do significant pioneering work. These efforts have fed through into practical developments, unlike a great deal of research in Australia where local applications have been modest. Farming practice has been transformed by successful research and development, with massive implications for the economy and thus for the welfare of all Australians. It is widely known that the Australian economy rode on the sheep's back (and lately on the backs of wheat farmers and miners as well) but it is not equally well known how much this ride depends on scientific research of the kind reported in this book.
Those who think that Australian farming is based on soils of great natural fertility need to think again. Much of the continent can be described in the terms applied to the site of the first farm in the colony 'the bulk of the soil is shallow and sandy with outcrops of rock at too frequent intervals'. Almost all the soils in Australia are low in natural fertility, lacking nitrogen and phosphorus, the two major nutrients needed for plant growth. Many also lack one or more 'trace elements', which, like vitamins, are required in minute quantities for healthy plant and animal growth.
Phosphorus or 'super' is provided out of a sack but nitrogen has so far been too expensive to supply in this manner over large areas. The answer has been provided by special strains of bacteria which colonise the roots of legumes such as subterranean ('sub') clover and extract nitrogen from the air for the use of the plant. This 'fixed' nitrogen then builds up the fertility of the soil when the clover dies or is eaten by animals.
Some decades elapsed between the discovery of the potential benefits of sub clover and its widespread use in improved pasture because the performance of the clover was at first highly unreliable. This is where Jim Vincent and his colleagues came in. The situation improved dramatically when the role of the bacteria in the root nodules came to light, followed by techniques to inoculate the seed with varieties of bacteria that are appropriate for the particular soil and climate.
The essays in the first section of this book are concerned with biological nitrogen fixation, that is, with the factors that influence the success of the bacteria/clover partnership. These range from soil type to the genetics of the host plant. Vincent himself did important work in many of these areas, often in collaboration with the contributors to this book. His capacity to move across a range of fundamental disciplines, and to carry the findings into farm practice, mock the claim that over-specialisation is inevitable in modern science.
The second section contains essays on general microbiology. These show the ramifications of his influence into areas far from the roots of clover plants, for example the microbiology of meat and the pipelines of the hydroelectric system in Tasmania. Kevin Marshall, who describes Vincent as 'my mentor and good friend', explored the role of bacteria in promoting the encrustation of the interior of the pipes.
One clear conclusion emerges from this book. The debate on higher education and its economic benefits needs to be informed by some study of the ecology of excellence in research and development. Agriculture provides numerous examples, and others would be found elsewhere. So far the plans for reorganisation of education and research are guided more by simple-minded notions of bureaucratic efficiency than from understanding of the conditions that promote effective learning and prompt application of the findings.
Research Studies Press, Letchworth, Herts. England, 1988.