Groundbreaking plant gene discovery could lead to more resilient crops, say scientists
A team of U.S. scientists has made a discovery that could lead to the development of bioenergy and food crops that can withstand harsh growing conditions, website ScienceDaily reports.
Additionally, the finding could aid the development of crops with the ability to resist pathogens and pests, require less chemical fertilizer and produce larger and more plentiful plants per acre, they say.
The researchers' breakthrough was pinpointing the specific plant gene that controls a key symbiotic relationship between plants and soil fungi, and successfully facilitating the symbiosis in a plant that typically resists it.
Being able to do so is groundbreaking because when plants and certain fungi that affect their roots - called mycorrhizal fungi - are united, it can have "remarkable" benefits for the plant, the publication explains.
The fungi form a sheath around plant roots, and its structure extends far from the plant host, increasing nutrient uptake and even communicating with other plants to "warn" of spreading pathogens and pests.
In return, plants feed carbon to the fungus, which encourages its growth.
To try to promote this type of relationship, the researchers focused their study on Arabidopsis, a plant that traditionally does not interact with the fungus L. bicolor, and even considers it a threat.
They created an engineered version of the plant that expresses a certain protein, called PtLecRLK1, and then introduced the fungus to the plant roots.
The fungus L. bicolor completely enveloped the plant's root tips, forming a fungal sheath indicative of symbiote formation.
"We showed that we can convert a non-host into a host of this symbiont," ORNL quantitative geneticist Wellington Muchero was quoted as saying.
"If we can make Arabidopsis interact with this fungus, then we believe we can make other biofuel crops like switchgrass, or food crops like corn also interact and confer the exact same benefits. It opens up all sorts of opportunities in diverse plant systems. Surprisingly, one gene is all you need."
Another of the team's molecular geneticists also emphasized the significance this plant gene discovery could have on the future.
"If we can understand the molecular mechanism that controls the relationship between plants and beneficial fungi, then we can start using this symbiosis to acquire specific conditions in plants such as resistance to drought, pathogens, improving nitrogen and nutrition uptake and more," ORNL molecular geneticist Jessy Labbe was quoted as saying.
"The resulting plants would grow larger and need less water and fertilizer, for instance."
So far, finding the genetic triggers in a plant that allow the symbiosis to occur has been one of the most challenging topics in the plant field, the publication indicates.
The discovery, published in Nature Plants, came after 10 years of research.
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