Jenny Kao-Kniffin“For centuries, people have had this idea of the ‘good earth,’ ” Cornell plant scientist Jenny Kao-Kniffin said. She studies the underground interactions that take place between soil microbes and the roots of plants, a zone she refers to as the phytobiome.

“This could be the next frontier in nutrition science,” said Kao-Kniffin, explaining how plants secrete compounds to feed nearby microbes and, in exchange, the microbes enable plants to capture essential nutrients (such as nitrogen) and manufacture a series of chemicals called phytonutrients or antioxidants.

These chemicals protect plants from pests and other stressors; they also give fruits and vegetables their color, smell and distinctive flavor. Research shows that these same chemicals directly benefit us by stimulating our immune system, regulating our hormones and slowing the growth of human cancer cells.

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