A new study has analyzed one environment-sensitive genic male sterile (EGMS) line that exhibited fertility transition under specified environmental conditions.
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?
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
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.
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.
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
So 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!