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Engineered plant microbiomes: The future of crop protection 

Scientists at the University of Southampton have successfully engineered the microbiome of plants for the first time, marking a significant advancement in agricultural biotechnology. 

This development has the potential to revolutionize the way we protect crops from diseases, substantially reducing the dependence on harmful pesticides.

Plant microbiomes

The significance of the microbiome, which refers to a complex community of microorganisms, has been a subject of growing interest. In humans, gut microbiomes play a critical role in various aspects of health, from metabolism to immunity. 

Similarly, plants host diverse microbiomes consisting of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microorganisms within their roots, stems, and leaves. These microbial communities are crucial in determining a plant’s health and its susceptibility to diseases.

Study significance

“In nature, plants and their associated microbes, collectively known as the microbiota, form functional entities that rely on each other. The microbiota contributes to aspects such as disease resistance, stress tolerance, and nutrient acquisition,” wrote the study authors.

“Successful recruitment and maintenance of a sufficient abundance of specific microbial members determines the outcome of plant-microbiota interactions. Thus, understanding the principles driving microbiome assembly in crop plants has become one of the main pursuits of present studies in order to integrate microbiome functioning into sustainable crop production.”

Focus of the research 

The research was focused on a specific gene in the lignin biosynthesis cluster of the rice plant, a component crucial for plant cell walls and overall biomass. 

Upon deactivating this gene, the scientists observed a decline in certain beneficial bacterial populations, underscoring the gene’s role in shaping the plant’s microbiome. 

On the other hand, overexpressing the gene resulted in the increased production of a particular metabolite, subsequently enhancing the prevalence of beneficial bacteria.

Successful results

The genetic modification proved its effectiveness when the engineered rice plants exhibited substantial resistance to Xanthomonas oryzae. This pathogen is responsible for bacterial blight, a prevalent and destructive disease in rice crops. 

The traditional method of controlling bacterial blight involves the use of polluting pesticides. Therefore, the development of crops with a naturally protective microbiome could not only secure food production but also benefit the environment.

Broader implications 

“For the first time, we’ve been able to change the makeup of a plant’s microbiome in a targeted way, boosting the numbers of beneficial bacteria that can protect the plant from other, harmful bacteria,” said study co-author Dr. Tomislav Cernava.

“This breakthrough could reduce reliance on pesticides, which are harmful to the environment. We’ve achieved this in rice crops, but the framework we’ve created could be applied to other plants and unlock other opportunities to improve their microbiome. For example, microbes that increase nutrient provision to crops could reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers.”

The implications of this research extend beyond disease resistance. The Southampton team is exploring ways to manipulate plant microbiomes to enhance other aspects of plant health, such as nutrient provision. 

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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