The right microbes on plant roots can make your tea taste better


Microbes seem to affect how well tea plants absorb nutrients

Artur Szymczyk / Alamy

Tweaking the community of microorganisms that live on the roots of tea plants could make a cup of your favourite brew even tastier.

Just as the bacteria that live in our guts can influence our health, the microbes that dwell in and around plant roots play a role in how plants absorb nutrients from the soil. But little is known about their impact on the flavour and nutritional content of tea, says Zhenbiao Yang at the University of California, Riverside.

To learn more, Yang and his colleagues collected and analysed tea plants (Camellia sinensis) grown in Fujian, China. They found that certain soil microbes were linked to greater nitrogen uptake, which boosted the production of a chemical called theanine in the plant’s roots.

Theanine in tea leaves adds a rich, umami taste to brews and the level of theanine in tea is considered a key marker of its quality. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and it can counter the stimulating effect of caffeine, says Yang.

The researchers then extracted 21 of the most beneficial microbes from soil to produce a synthetic microbial community. The composition of this group of microbes was extremely similar to those found naturally around a theanine-rich tea variety called Rougui.

Applying this synthetic microbial community to the roots of other tea plants enhanced theanine levels, even in plants grown in nitrogen-poor soils. “Not only are there greater health benefits, it also improves the sweet and savoury flavour of tea,” says Yang.

The team hopes that synthetic microbe communities will be used to perfect tea quality in the future, and could improve the nutritional value of other plants, such as rice.

“Increasing the efficiency of nitrogen absorption can also reduce our reliance on fertilisers, which could have huge implications for the future of agriculture too,” says Yang.

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