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plantsci Archives - The Global Plant Council

Beneficial bacteria help wheat stand the heat

By | News, Plant Science

Coating crop seeds with bacteria found on a desert shrub boosts yields in hot fields.

Bacteria plucked from a desert plant could help crops survive heatwaves and protect the future of food.

Global warming has increased the number of severe heatwaves that wreak havoc on agriculture, reduce crop yields and threaten food supplies. However, not all plants perish in extreme heat. Some have natural heat tolerance, while others acquire heat tolerance after previous exposure to higher temperatures than normal, similar to how vaccines trigger the immune system with a tiny dose of virus. 

But breeding heat tolerant crops is laborious and expensive, and slightly warming entire fields is even trickier.

There is growing interest in harnessing microbes to protect plants, and biologists have shown that root-dwelling bacteria can help their herbaceous hosts survive extreme conditions, such as drought, excessive salt or heat. 

“Beneficial bacteria could become one of the quickest, cheapest and greenest ways to help achieve sustainable agriculture,” says postdoc Kirti Shekhawat. “However, no long-term studies have proven they work in the real world, and we haven’t yet uncovered what’s happening on a molecular level,” she adds.

To fill this knowledge gap, Shekhawat, along with a team led by Heribert Hirt, selected the beneficial bacteria SA187 that lives in the root of a robust desert shrub, Indigofera argentea. They coated wheat seeds with the bacteria and then planted them in the lab along with some untreated seeds. After six days, they heated the crops at 44 degrees Celsius for two hours. “Any longer would kill them all,” says Shekhawat.

The untreated wheat suffered leaf damage and ceased to grow, while the treated wheat emerged unscathed and flourished, suggesting that the bacteria had triggered heat tolerance. “The bacteria enter the plant as soon as the seeds germinate, and they live happily in symbiosis for the plant’s entire life,” explains Shekhawat.

The researchers then grew their wheat for several years in natural fields in Dubai, where temperatures can reach 45 degrees Celsius. Here, wheat is usually grown only in winter, but the bacteria-bolstered crops consistently had yields between 20 and 50 percent higher than normal. “We were incredibly happy to see that a single bacterial species could protect crops like this,” says Shekhawat

The team then used the model plant Arabidopsis to screen all the plant genes expressed under heat stress, both with and without the bacteria. They found that the bacteria produce metabolites that are converted into the plant hormone ethylene, which primes the plant’s heat-resistance genes for action. “Essentially, the bacteria teach the plant how to use its own defense system,” says Shekhawat.

Thousands of other bacteria have the power to protect plants against diverse threats, from droughts to fungi, and the team is already testing some on other crops, including vegetables.  “We have just scratched the surface of this hidden world of soil that we once dismissed as dead matter,” says Hirt. “Beneficial bacteria could help transform an unsustainable agricultural system into a truly ecological one.”

Read the paper: EMBO reports

Article source: KAUST

Image: Studies have shown that root-dwelling bacteria can help plants and crops survive extreme conditions, such as drought, excessive salt or heat. Credit: Anastasia Serin, KAUST

How plants stabilize their water pipes

By | Plant Science, Research

New techniques allow live-observation of forming cell walls in the vascular tissue. The so-called xylem, also known as wood, is a network of hollow cells with extremely strong cell walls that reinforce the cells against the mechanical conflicts arising from growing tall. These walls wrap around the cells in filigree band and spiral patterns. So far, it is only partly known, how these patterns are created. Scientists recently study the formation of such reinforced and patterned cell walls.

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“You Say Tomato, I Say Genomics”: Genome Sequences for Two Wild Tomato Ancestors

By | Agriculture, Fruits and Vegetables, News, Plant Science

Tomatoes are one of the most popular types of fresh produce consumed worldwide, as well as being an important ingredient in many manufactured foods. As with other cultivated crops, some potentially useful genes that were present in its South American ancestors were lost during domestication and breeding of the modern tomato, Solanum lycopersicum var. lycopersicum. Because of its importance as a crop, the tomato genome sequence was completed and published as long ago as 2012, with later additions and improvements. Now researchers have produced high-quality genome sequences of two wild ancestors of tomato from Peru, Solanum pimpinellifolium and Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme.

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Plants and the art of microbial maintenance

By | News

It’s been known for centuries that plants produce a diverse array of medically-valuable chemicals in their roots.

The benefits for human health are clear, but it’s been less apparent how and why plants expend 20 percent of their energy building these exotic chemicals. Is it for defence? Is it waste? What is it for?

A joint study from the John Innes Centre and the Chinese Academy of Sciences has shed new light on this fundamental question of plant specialised metabolism.

Appearing in the journal Science, the study reveals that plants use their root-derived chemicals to muster and maintain communities of microbes. It suggests that across the plant kingdom diverse plant chemistry may provide a basis for communication that enables the sculpting of microbial communities tailored to the specific needs of the host plant, be that a common weed or major crops such as rice or wheat.

The findings provide researchers with a gateway to engineering plant root microbiota in a range of major crops.

“This question has fascinated people for hundreds of years and we’ve found this chemistry enables plants to direct the assembly and maintenance of microbial communities in and around the roots,” says Professor Anne Osbourn of the John Innes Centre, a co-author of the study.

“We assume that the plant is shaping the root microbiota for its own benefit. If we can understand what the plant is doing and what kind of microbes are responding to it and what the benefits are then we may be able to use that knowledge to design improved crops or to engineer the root microbiome for enhanced productivity and sustainability and to move away from fertilizers and pesticides,” adds Professor Osbourn.

In this study the team uncovered a metabolic network expressed in the roots of the well-known model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. This network, organised primarily around gene clusters, can make over 50 previously undescribed molecules belonging to a diverse family of plant natural products called Triterpenes.

The researchers generated plants altered in the production of these root-derived chemicals and working with Professor Yang Bai of the Chinese Academy of Sciences grew these plants in natural soil from a farm in Beijing.

The results showed clear differences in the types of microbial communities that these plants assembled compared with the wild plants.

In further experiments the group synthesized many of these newly-discovered chemicals and tested their effect on communities of cultured microbes in a laboratory re-enactment of plant-microbial interactions in the soil.

“Using this approach, we can see that very small differences in chemical structures can have profound effects on whether a particular molecule will inhibit or promote the growth of a particular bacteria. Taken together we can clearly see that very subtle, selective modulation of microbes by this cocktail of chemicals,” says first author of the paper Dr Ancheng Huang.

Comparisons with root bacterial profiles in rice and wheat that do not make these Arabidopsis triterpenes demonstrated that these genetic networks were modulating bacteria towards the assembly of an Arabidopsis-specific root microbiota.

The next steps for the researchers is to explore further the benefits of this sculpting of the microbial community for the plant and observe other influences on plant chemistry such as nutrient limitation and pathogen challenge.

Read the paper: Science

Article source: John Innes Centre

Image: Phil Robinson

Plant Biology 2015: Introducing Plantae.org

By | ASPB, Blog, Future Directions, GPC Community, Plantae, Scientific Meetings, SEB
Minneapolis skyline. Photo by 'zman z28', Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Minneapolis skyline. Photo by ‘zman z28’, Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Ruth and I recently flew out to Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, to attend the American Society of Plant Biologists’ (ASPB) annual conference, Plant Biology 2015.

Ruth did a sterling job of live-tweeting the scientific sessions she attended. She also spent some time stationed at the ASPB booth to talk to people about the Global Plant Council (GPC), as well as a big project we’re helping to bring to life: Plantae.org. I’ll talk more about what I did at the conference later… But first, what is Plantae.org?

The Evolution of Plantae.org

Some time ago, here at the GPC, we thought it would be a great idea if there was one, online location where plant scientists and teachers could go to look for and share new ideas, tools and resources for research and education. We tentatively called it the ‘Plant Knowledge Hub’, and set about looking for people or organizations that might be able to help us make it a reality.

In doing so, we discovered that the ASPB was interested in creating a kind of community networking and collaboration platform, for which they had the working title ‘Plant Science Exchange’. Joining forces, we decided to combine the two ideas into one big portal, now called ‘Plantae’. Extending beyond the ASPB membership, Plantae will be for plant scientists and educators all over the world. We hope it will become the leading plant science resource hub and community gathering place.

Lisa modeling her Plantae t-shirt!

Lisa modeling her Plantae t-shirt!

At this point, I should also mention the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB), without whose help the GPC would not have been able to move forward with this project. The SEB generously provided enough funding for my post! I joined the GPC in February as the Outreach & Communications Manager, so as well as looking after the GPC’s internal and external communications and helping to spread the word about the work of the GPC, one of my main duties is to identify and curate tools, resources and plant science information to upload to Plantae.

Building Plantae.org

I’ve made a few simple websites in the past, but nothing as complicated as an entire ‘digital ecosystem’ so taking the ‘Plant Science Knowledge Exchange Hub’ from an idea to the reality of Plantae.org was going to be a mammoth task. Fortunately we have had a lot of help!

Susan Cato, the ASPB’s Director of Member Services and Digital Marketing, and her team, have been doing a stellar job of pulling different stakeholder groups together to build and develop the Plantae platform. As well as a group of web architects to build the portal’s infrastructure, an agency called LookThink has been involved, with the unenviable task of optimizing the user experience. It’s no mean feat to take our ideas about what the platform should do, and the practicalities of how it can be built, to ensure that the final online product actually does what users want and need it to do in an intuitive, user-friendly way!

Ultimately, Plantae.org will have features such as Facebook or LinkedIn-style user profiles and groups, with the ability to ‘connect’, interact and send private messages. It will have public and private discussion boards where scientists can collaborate, talk about issues in science, or ask questions to the community and have them answered. It will eventually contain hundreds and thousands of pages of content including research papers, teaching resources, videos, posters and much more, some of which will be curated by groups like the GPC, and others uploaded directly by members. Underlying all of this, the portal needs a robust, intuitive search engine to allow users to find exactly the contact they are looking for.

User Testing the Beta Version

PlantBiology2015logoSo during the ASPB conference, I was to be found in a meeting room with Clare Torrans from LookThink, helping her to conduct some user experience analysis on an early beta version of the Plantae site. We recruited a range of potential Plantae users – from students through to senior professors – and asked them to tell us what they thought of the idea of Plantae, whether they would use it and find it useful, whether the icons, buttons and links on the screen did what they expected, and what else they would like Plantae to do.

I’d never consciously considered the ‘user experience’ of a website before, but having spent time with Clare, I now realize it’s a vital part of the build process – and now I’m analyzing every website I visit!

The feedback we received was varied: there were some clear patterns related to age, academic level, or previous experience with social media, some people pointed out elements of the site I hadn’t even noticed, or misinterpreted buttons I’d thought were obvious, but – positive or negative – all of the feedback we received was useful and will be fed back into the site development process.

When can I start using Plantae?

The site isn’t quite ready yet, but taking into account all of the data we obtained from the user testing sessions at Plant Biology 15, we will hopefully be ready for launch in the Autumn. Watch this space for more news!