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Plant Gene Discovery Could Help Reduce Fertilizer Pollution in Waterways

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Over-fertilization of agricultural fields is a huge environmental problem. Excess phosphorus from fertilized cropland frequently finds its way into nearby rivers and lakes. A resulting boom of aquatic plant growth can cause oxygen levels in the water to plunge, leading to fish die-offs and other harmful effects.

Researchers from Boyce Thompson Institute have uncovered the function of a pair of plant genes that could help farmers improve phosphate capture, potentially reducing the environmental harm associated with fertilization.

The work was published in Nature Plants.

The discovery stems from Maria Harrison’s focus on plants’ symbiotic relationships with arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi. Harrison is the William H. Crocker Professor at BTI and an adjunct professor in Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science.

AM fungi colonize plant roots, creating an interface where the plant trades fatty acids for phosphate and nitrogen. The fungi also can help plants recover from stressful conditions, such as periods of drought.

But feeding the AM fungi with fatty acids is costly, so plants don’t let this colonization go unchecked.

To discover how plants control the amount of fungal colonization, Harrison and Lena Müller, a postdoctoral scientist in her lab, looked at genes that encode short proteins called CLE peptides in the plants Medicago truncatula and Brachypodium distachyon.

CLE peptides are involved in cellular development and response to stress, and they are present throughout the plant kingdom, from green algae to flowering plants.

The researchers found that two of these CLE genes are key modulators of AM fungal symbiosis. One gene, called CLE53, reduces colonization rates once the roots have been colonized. Another gene, CLE33, reduces colonization rates when there is plenty of phosphate available to the plant.

“Being able to control fungal colonization levels in plant roots and maintain the symbiosis even in higher phosphate conditions might be useful to a farmer,” Harrison said. “For example, you may want the other beneficial effects of AM fungi, like nitrogen uptake and recovery from drought, as well as further uptake of phosphate”

“You might be able to achieve these benefits by altering the levels of these CLE peptides in the plants,” Harrison added.

Müller found that the CLE peptides act through a receptor protein called SUNN. In collaboration with Harro Bouwmeester and Kristyna Flokova of the University of Amsterdam, she found that the two CLE peptides modulate the plant’s synthesis of a compound called strigolactone.

Plant roots exude strigolactone into the soil, and the compound stimulates AM fungi to grow and colonize the root. Once the roots are colonized or there is plenty of phosphate, the CLE genes suppress the synthesis of strigolactone, thus reducing any further colonization by the fungi.

“In the early 2000’s, researchers found that plants had a way to measure and then reduce colonization,” Müller said. “But until now, nobody really understood the molecular mechanism of that dynamic.”

The researchers’ next steps will include figuring out the molecules that turn on the CLE genes in response to colonization and high phosphate levels.

Müller also plans to compare the two CLE peptides from this study with additional CLE peptides that have different functions.

“The CLE peptides are all so similar but they have completely different functions,” Müller said. “It will be very interesting to see why that is.”

Read the paper: Nature Plants

Article source: Boyce Thompson Institute

Image: Boyce Thompson Institute

Large-scale genomics will improve the yield, climate-resilience, and quality of bread wheat, new study shows

By | Future Directions, News, Plant Science, Research | No Comments

Scientists identified significant new chromosomal regions for wheat yield and disease resistance, which will speed up global breeding efforts.

Using the full wheat genome map published in 2018, combined with data from field testing of wheat breeding lines in multiple countries, an international team of scientists has identified significant new chromosomal regions for wheat yield and disease resistance and created a freely-available collection of genetic information and markers for more than 40,000 wheat lines.

Reported in Nature Genetics, the results will speed up global efforts to breed more productive and climate-resilient varieties of bread wheat, a critical crop for world food security that is under threat from rising temperatures, rapidly-evolving fungal pathogens, and more frequent droughts, according to Philomin Juliana, wheat scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and first author of the new study.

“This work directly connects the wheat genome reference map with wheat lines and extensive field data from CIMMYT’s global wheat breeding network,” said Juliana. “That network in turn links to over 200 breeding programs and research centers worldwide and contributes to yield and other key traits in varieties sown on nearly half the world’s wheat lands.”

The staple food for more than 2.5 billion people, wheat provides 20% of human dietary calories and protein worldwide and is critical for the nutrition and food security of hundreds of millions of poor persons in regions such as North Africa and South Asia.

“Farmers and societies today face new challenges to feed rising and rapidly-urbanizing populations, and wheat epitomizes the issues,” said Ravi Singh, CIMMYT wheat breeder and corresponding author of the study. “Higher temperatures are holding back yields in major wheat-growing areas, extreme weather events are common, crop diseases are spreading and becoming more virulent, and soil and water are being depleted.”

Juliana said the study results help pave the way to apply genomic selection, an approach that has transformed dairy cow husbandry, for more efficient wheat breeding.

“Molecular markers are getting cheaper to use; meanwhile, it’s very costly to do field testing and selection involving many thousands of wheat plants over successive generations,” Juliana said. “Genome-wide marker-based selection can help breeders to precisely identify good lines in early breeding generations and to test plantlets in greenhouses, thereby complementing and streamlining field testing.”

The new study found that genomic selection could be particularly effective in breeding for wheat end-use quality and for resistance to stem rust disease, whose causal pathogen has been evolving and spreading in the form of highly-virulent new races.

The new study also documents the effectiveness of the global public breeding efforts by CIMMYT and partners, showing that improved wheat varieties from this work have accumulated multiple gene variants that favor higher yields, according to Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT’s global wheat program.

“This international collaboration, which is the world’s largest publicly-funded wheat breeding program, benefits farmers worldwide and offers high-quality wheat lines that are released directly to farmers in countries, such as Afghanistan, that are unable to run a full-fledged wheat breeding program,”

Braun explained.

The study results are expected to support future gene discovery, molecular breeding, and gene editing in wheat, Braun said.

Together with more resource-efficient cropping systems, high-yielding and climate-resilient wheat varieties will constitute a key component of the sustainable intensification of food production described in Strategy 3 of the recent EAT-Lancet Commission recommendations to transform the global food system. Large-scale genomics will play a key role in developing these varieties and staying ahead of climate- and disease-related threats to food security.

Read the paper: Nature Genetics

Article source: CIMMYT

Image: Apollo Habtamu/CIMMYT

saisies

Daisies that close at night have camouflaged petals to protect them from herbivores

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Species of daisy that close their flowers at night, produce colour in their exposed lower petals that makes them harder to spot for herbivores, reducing herbivory rates of flowers. The findings are presented in the British Ecological Society journal Functional Ecology.

Researchers from Stellenbosch University, South Africa found that tortoises, one of the main herbivores of the daisies, were unable to distinguish the lower petal surfaces against a green leaf background. Tortoises prefer to eat protein-rich flowers over leaves, but when confronted with closed flowers, they showed no preference between them.

When the researchers modelled the colours of the lower petal surfaces in the vision of other herbivores, they also found these colours to be indistinguishable from leaves.

In contrast, species of daisy that do not close at night produced the same colouration on their lower petals as the upper petals exposed to pollinators.

Plants face an evolutionary conflict between having flowers that attract pollinators while avoiding herbivores. Often plants defend themselves chemically, but this can have adverse effects on pollination.

“When plants defend their flowers chemically, the pollination interactions can be negatively influenced. Our study shows a novel way in which flowers can avoid herbivores, without compromising pollination interactions.

– says Dr. Jurene Kemp, lead author of the study.

“These flowers can potentially circumvent the conflict of attracting both pollinators and herbivores by producing attractive colours on the surfaces that are exposed to pollinators (when flowers are open) and cryptic colours that are exposed when herbivores are active (when flowers are closed).”

In Namaqualand, South Africa, where the research took place, daises bloom annually in a spring flowering. This makes preserving flowers, responsible for reproduction, particularly important.

The researchers examined the colouration of 77 Asteraceae species, modelling how they appear in the visual systems of chameleons, horses and goats as proxies for tortoises and larger herbivores in the area, like springbok. They then tested the preferences of real tortoises with both open and closed flowers against leaf backgrounds.

Not all Asteraceae species that close their flowers had cryptically coloured lower petal surfaces, but in the experiments, the tortoises did not readily eat these flowers. Dr. Kemp said, “One interesting question would be to test whether non-cryptic flowers have chemical defences, and whether these chemical defences are absent in the cryptic flowers.”

On further research Dr. Kemp said “Unfortunately, we could only do this using one plant family in one botanical region, it would be great to see if other plant species also use colour to avoid herbivores.”

The researchers would also have liked to use larger herbivores such as springboks in their behavioural experiments, but Dr. Kemp adds that “this was practically not possible.”

Read the paper: Functional Ecology

Article source: British Ecological society Press Office

Image: Jurene Kemp


phytoplankton

Phytoplankton more resilient to nutrient stress than previously thought

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An international team of Earth system scientists and oceanographers has created the first high-resolution global map of surface ocean phosphate, a key mineral supporting the aquatic food chain. In doing so, the University of California, Irvine-led group learned that marine phytoplankton – which rely on the trace nutrient – are a lot more resilient to its scarcity than previously thought.

The researchers’ findings, published today in Science Advances, have important implications for climate change predictions. Ocean algae, or phytoplankton, absorbs a significant amount of carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere, thereby providing a valuable service in regulating the planet’s temperature.

“Understanding the global distribution of ocean nutrients is fundamental to identifying the link between changes in ocean physics and ocean biology,” said lead author Adam Martiny, UCI professor of Earth system science and ecology & evolutionary biology. “One of the outcomes of having this map is that we can show that plankton communities are extremely resilient even in nutrient-deficient environments. As lower ocean nutrient availability is one of the predicted outcomes of climate change, this may be good news for plankton – and for us.”

Dissolved inorganic phosphate plays an important biogeochemical role in the ocean habitat but is notoriously difficult to detect. Phosphorus is a crucial element of essential-to-life molecules such as adenosine triphosphate, which stores and transfers chemical energy between cells, and those found in DNA. Earth has a finite amount of phosphorus – unlike many other nutrients useful to phytoplankton – and it’s rare in the ocean.

Knowing how much is out there, and where, helps scientists understand the dynamics of the ocean food web and how it will be affected by alterations in ocean chemistry brought on by climate change. Martiny and his colleagues analyzed more than 50,500 seawater samples collected on 42 research voyages covering all of Earth’s ocean basins.

Martiny said that in addition to identifying regions where the mineral is in short supply, the team was able to discover previously unknown patterns of phosphate levels in major ocean basins in the Atlantic and Pacific.

“We have for too long had this simplistic view of a nutrient-rich ocean at high latitudes and ocean deserts at low latitudes,” he said. “However, in this paper we argue that our current predictions of nutrient stress may be too dire and that marine organisms are able to handle a limited supply of phosphate better than we previously thought.”

Read the paper: Science Advances

Article source: University of California – Irvine

Image: ! ツ / Pixabay

CABMV symptoms

Technique combats widespread passion fruit disease

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Passion fruit woodiness caused by cowpea aphid-borne mosaic virus (CABMV), the disease that most affects passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) grown in Brazil, can be combated with a relatively simple technique.

A study published in the journal Plant Pathology shows that systematic eradication of plants with symptoms of the disease preserves the crop as a whole and keeps plants producing for at least 25 months.

The technique currently used to combat CABMV entails renewing the entire orchard every year. This is, of course, a costly procedure. According to the authors of the study, economic factors are critical for this crop, which is mostly grown by small producers.

CABMV occurs in all states of Brazil and impairs plant development. Passion fruit woodiness disease causes leaf mosaic, blisters, deformation and reduced fruit size, making the produce unmarketable. Vines are typically eliminated only when the disease is detected in the early stages of their life cycle. The researchers propose systematic roguing – removal of weak, diseased or abnormal plants – throughout the life of the crop.

The study was funded by FAPESP and CAPES, the Brazilian Ministry of Education’s Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel. It was conducted by Brazilian researchers affiliated with the University of São Paulo’s Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ-USP), the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) at Araras, the University of Southwest Bahia (UESB), and the Semiarid Agriculture Unit of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), as well as colleagues at Argentina’s National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA).
“Roguing is a technique that has been used to combat papaya disease in Espírito Santo state since the 1980s. After several experiments, it was found to be the best way to control papaya ringspot virus type P [PRSV-P],” said Jorge Alberto Marques Rezende, Full Professor at ESALQ-USP and principal investigator for the study, which began in 2010.

CABMV is transmitted by aphid saliva and spreads throughout an orchard in a few months. The aphid species in question do not colonize the plants but merely visit them, and insecticide is not effective for control purposes.
“Insecticide affects their nervous system but takes hours to kill them. Meanwhile, they’re stimulated to feed on more plants, spreading the virus farther, so insecticide helps propagate the disease instead of controlling it,” said David Marques de Almeida Spadotti, first author of the article. The research was part of Spadotti’s postdoctoral fellowship at ESALQ-USP.
In previous experiments, the use of transgenic passion fruit plants and inoculation with attenuated variants of CABMV as a kind of vaccine also failed to control the disease. In this new study, an experimental orchard was planted in three areas belonging to ESALQ-USP in Piracicaba, São Paulo state, and two areas in Vitória da Conquista, southwestern Bahia. The experiments took place between 2013 and 2018. Approximately 100 healthy seedlings were planted in two areas of each city using trellises or T-shaped arbors connected by wires.

The vines were trained on the trellises and arbors for support but also to separate them so that the disease could easily be observed. Any buds with symptoms were identified and removed in weekly inspections.
In two other areas distant from the others, the same number of vines were planted using trellises and allowed to interlace without roguing, as in commercial plantations. The results of the two strategies were then compared.

In the absence of roguing, the virus spread throughout the crop in 120 days. In the areas submitted to systematic roguing, 8% of the vines were infected and removed after 180 days. In Piracicaba, only 16% had to be removed after 25 months, and the plants remained productive throughout this period.

The presence of CABMV in all infected or preventively removed vines was confirmed by PTA-ELISA serological testing.

“The symptoms appear eight days after inoculation of the virus on average. Roguing enables the grower to identify diseased plants visually and base control on visual inspection. Inspection should ideally be carried out at least once a week”

Spadotti said.

Cultural change

According to the researchers, the next step in the study entails larger pilot plantings of 1,000-2,000 passion fruit vines. In addition to eradicating diseased plants, they plan to replace them with healthy plants. The idea is to maintain the orchard for three to four years and compare it with another orchard maintained in the conventional manner, in which all plants are replaced every year.

“Because passion fruit is semiperennial, this longer production period is more advantageous from an economic standpoint than complete annual substitution,” said Rezende, principal investigator for the Thematic Project “Begomovirus and Crinivirus in Solanaceae”, which also relates to viruses in food crops.

The researchers stress, however, that if the strategy is to succeed, it should be implemented by all passion fruit growers in any given region. In addition to other plantations, the virus can spread from old or abandoned orchards, which should be eliminated.

CABMV-susceptible wild species of passion fruit in forests near plantations may also spread the disease. One of the experimental areas in Vitória da Conquista failed for this reason. When the wild plants were eliminated, the incidence of CABMV was considerably reduced.

According to IBGE, the national statistics and census bureau, Brazil is the world’s leading grower of passion fruit, with more than 550,000 metric tons produced in 2017.

Read the paper: Plant Pathology

Article source: Agência FAPESP

Author: André Julião

Image: Jorge Rezende

stomata

How Plants Measure Their CO2 Uptake

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Plants face a dilemma in dry conditions: they have to seal themselves off to prevent losing too much water but this also limits their uptake of carbon dioxide. A sensory network assures that the plant strikes the right balance.

When water is scarce, plants can close their pores to prevent losing too much water. This allows them to survive even longer periods of drought, but with the majority of pores closed, carbon dioxide uptake is also limited, which impairs photosynthetic performance and thus plant growth and yield.

Plant accomplish a balancing act – navigating between drying out and starving in dry conditions – through an elaborate network of sensors. An international team of plant scientists led by Rainer Hedrich, a biophysicist from Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg in Bavaria, Germany, has now pinpointed these sensors. The results have been published in the journal Nature Plants.

Microvalves control photosynthesis and water supply

When light is abundant, plants open the pores in their leaves to take in carbon dioxide (CO2) which they subsequently convert to carbohydrates in a process called photosynthesis. At the same time, a hundred times more water escapes through the microvalves than carbon dioxide flows in.

This is not a problem when there is enough water available, but when soils are parched in the middle of summer, the plant needs to switch to eco-mode to save water. Then plants will only open their pores to perform photosynthesis for as long as necessary to barely survive. Opening and closing the pores is accomplished through specialised guard cells that surround each pore in pairs. The units comprised of pores and guard cells are called stomata.

Guard cells have sensors for CO2 and ABA

The guard cells must be able to measure the photosynthesis and the water supply to respond appropriately to changing environmental conditions. For this purpose, they have a receptor to measure the CO2 concentration inside the leaf. When the CO2 value rises sharply, this is a sign that the photosynthesis is not running ideally. Then the pores are closed to prevent unnecessary evaporation. Once the CO2 concentration has fallen again, the pores reopen.

The water supply is measured through a hormone. When water is scarce, plants produce abscisic acid (ABA), a key stress hormone, and set their CO2 control cycle to water saving mode. This is accomplished through guard cells which are fitted with ABA receptors. When the hormone concentration in the leaf increases, the pores close.

Analysing the CO2-ABA network

The JMU research team wanted to shed light on the components of the guard cell control cycles. For this purpose, they exposed Arabidopsis species to elevated levels of CO2 or ABA. They did so over several hours to trigger reactions at the level of the genes. Afterwards, the stomata were isolated from the leaves to analyse the respective gene expression profiles of the guard cells using bioinformatics techniques. For this task, the team took Tobias Müller and Marcus Dietrich on board, two bioinformatics experts at the University of Würzburg.

The two experts found out that the gene expression patterns differed significantly at high CO2 or ABA concentrations. Moreover, they noticed that excessive CO2 also caused the expression of some ABA genes to change. These findings led the researchers to take a closer look at the ABA signalling pathway. They were particularly interested in the ABA receptors of the PYR/PYL family (pyrabactin receptor and pyrabactin-like). Arabidopsis has 14 of these receptors, six of them in the guard cells.

ABA receptors under the microscope

“Why does a guard cell need as many as six receptors for a single hormone? To answer this question, we teamed up with Professor Pedro Luis Rodriguez from the University of Madrid, who is an expert in ABA receptors,” says Hedrich. Rodriguez’s team generated Arabidopsis mutants in which they could study the ABA receptors individually.

“This enabled us to assign each of the six ABA receptors a task in the network and identify the individual receptors which are responsible for the ABA- and CO2-induced closing of the stomata,” Peter Ache, a colleague of Hedrich‘s, explains.

Guard cells use ABA as currency in calculations

“We conclude from the findings that the guard cells offset the current photosynthetic carbon fixation performance with the status of the water balance using ABA as the currency,” Hedrich explains. “When the water supply is good, our results indicate that the ABA receptors evaluate the basic hormonal balance as quasi ‘stress-free’ and keep the stomata open for CO2 supply. When water is scarce, the drought stress receptors recognise the elevated ABA level and make the guard cells close the stomata to prevent the plant from drying out.”

Next, the JMU researchers aim to study the special characteristics of the ABA and CO2 relevant receptors as well as their signalling pathways and components.

Read the paper: Nature Plants

Article source: UNIVERSITY OF WÜRZBURG

Image:  Rainer Hedrich & Peter Ache / Universität Würzburg