Back in 1995, Dr. Robert Bruck, a plant pathologist at North Carolina State University, got an unexpected knock on his office door.

“There was this short, very distinguished looking gentleman with a white beard and an Australian accent,” says Bruck. “He said ‘good day, mate, can I have a few minutes of your time?’” The man was Dr. Frank McKenna, a soil microbiologist from Murdoch University in Western Australia. McKenna explained to Bruck that decades earlier he had been commissioned by the Australian government to investigate the possibility of using beneficial soil organisms to combat plant diseases and, as a result of his research, had developed a microbial inoculant that was highly effective at promoting plant vigor and soil health in a range of settings. He was looking to promote the product in the United States and was wondering if Bruck, as the head of Environmental Technology and Science at NCSU, might be willing to help.

Just as any intelligent farmer is wary of salesmen hawking the latest agricultural miracle product, Bruck’s guard went up at first, but he quickly found himself in a serious scientist to scientist discussion about McKenna’s work. Bruck was intrigued.

“Frank was a very well traveled person, and he’d created a library of soil microorganisms from around the world. Wherever he would go, he would collect specimens from both natural ecosystems and from agro-ecosystems.”

McKenna was a connoisseur of soil biota. During his career he amassed a library of about 1,500 microbes, many of which were not different species, but unique strains of common species that he found in particular

by Brian Barth