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Sinorhizobium meliloti is a microorganism commercially used in the production of e.g. Medicago sativa seed inocula. Many inocula are powder-based and production includes a drying step. Although S. meliloti survives drying well, the quality of the inocula is reduced during this process. In this study we determined survival during desiccation of the commercial strains 102F84 and 102F85 as well as the model strain USDA1021.
The survival of S. meliloti 1021 was estimated during nine weeks at 22% relative humidity. We found that after an initial rapid decline of colony forming units, the decline slowed to a steady 10-fold reduction in colony forming units every 22 days. In spite of the reduction in colony forming units, the fraction of the population identified as viable (42-54%) based on the Baclight live/dead stain did not change significantly over time. This change in the ability of viable cells to form colonies shows (i) an underestimation of the survival of rhizobial cells using plating methods, and that (ii) in a part of the population desiccation induces a Viable But Non Culturable (VBNC)-like state, which has not been reported before. Resuscitation attempts did not lead to a higher recovery of colony forming units indicating the VBNC state is stable under the conditions tested. This observation has important consequences for the use of rhizobia. Finding methods to resuscitate this fraction may increase the quality of powder-based seed inocula.