In a groundbreaking achievement, scientists have achieved a significant breakthrough by engineering the microbiome of plants, increasing the prevalence of beneficial bacteria that serve as a shield against diseases. This remarkable discovery, recently published in Nature Communications, is the result of collaborative research between the University of Southampton, China, and Austria. Its implications extend far beyond agriculture, as it has the potential to revolutionize plant health and reduce the need for harmful pesticides.

Much like the human body’s microbiome, consisting of diverse microorganisms residing in and around us, plants also host a multitude of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microorganisms within their roots, stems, and leaves. Over the past decade, scientists have been delving into the intricate world of plant microbiomes to understand their influence on plant health and susceptibility to diseases.

Dr. Tomislav Cernava, co-author of the study and Associate Professor in Plant-Microbe Interactions at the University of Southampton, highlights the significance of this milestone, stating, “For the first time, we’ve been able to alter the composition of a plant’s microbiome in a targeted manner, increasing the numbers of beneficial bacteria that can protect the plant from harmful bacteria.”

This achievement holds the potential to reduce our reliance on environmentally harmful pesticides, which have raised concerns for years. Dr. Cernava further emphasizes the broader applicability of their findings, saying, “We’ve accomplished this in rice crops, but the framework we’ve developed could be applied to other plants, unlocking opportunities to improve their microbiomes. For example, microbes that enhance nutrient provision to crops could reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers.”

The international research team identified a specific gene within the lignin biosynthesis cluster of rice plants that plays a pivotal role in shaping their microbiome. Lignin, a complex polymer present in plant cell walls, constitutes a substantial portion of the biomass in certain plant species, exceeding 30 percent in some cases.

In their investigation, the researchers first deactivated this gene, resulting in a decrease in the population of beneficial bacteria. This confirmed the gene’s crucial role in modulating the microbiome community. Subsequently, they over-expressed the same gene, causing the plant to produce more of a particular metabolite—a small molecule generated during the plant’s metabolic processes. This augmentation boosted the proportion of beneficial bacteria within the plant’s microbiome.

When these genetically engineered plants encountered Xanthomonas oryzae, a pathogen responsible for bacterial blight in rice crops, they exhibited significantly enhanced resistance compared to their wild-type counterparts. Bacterial blight poses a recurring threat in Asia, often resulting in substantial rice yield losses. Historically, its control has relied heavily on the use of polluting pesticides, making the development of crops with protective microbiomes a significant stride towards food security and environmental preservation.

Looking ahead, the research team is eager to explore how they can manipulate the presence of other beneficial microbes to unlock diverse advantages for plant health. This pioneering work underscores the potential for harnessing the power of microbiomes to safeguard crops, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and ensure a sustainable future for global food production.

As science continues to unlock the mysteries of the microbiome, the possibilities for improving plant health and reducing pesticide dependency seem boundless.

By Impact Lab