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Maize plant genetics shape root health and growth

Maize genetics play a pivotal role in determining the health and efficiency of plant roots, as uncovered by an international team of researchers led by the University of Bonn.

The study reveals a significant link between the genetic makeup of maize plants and the composition of microorganisms surrounding their roots.

Published in the prestigious journal Nature Plants, this research opens new pathways to breeding maize varieties more resilient to challenges such as drought and nutrient scarcity, showcasing the potential of genetics in revolutionizing agriculture.

The crucial allies beneath the surface

Roots serve as plants’ lifelines, anchoring them and enabling nutrient and water absorption. Yet, their success relies on a crucial but unseen coalition of bacteria and fungi. This tiny microbial layer, only a few millimeters thick around the roots, is vital for plant health.

Dr. Peng Yu, who leads the “Root Functional Biology” junior research group at INRES, University of Bonn, emphasized the importance of these microbes.

“These microorganisms are essential for the health and fitness of the plants,” said Dr. Yu. They enhance nutrient uptake, offer protection from pathogens, and mirror the role of the human gut microbiome in maintaining health.

A genetic influence on microbial companions

This research overturns the traditional belief that only soil influences the root microbiome. It demonstrates that maize genetics are equally important in determining which microorganisms surround the roots. These genetic factors not only impact plant health but also resilience against challenges such as drought and nutrient shortages.

Professor Dr. Frank Hochholdinger of INRES points out the significance of this finding amid climate change and phosphorus scarcity. He suggests that using genetic insights for breeding could produce maize varieties better equipped to withstand these pressures.

Genes and microbes: Maize’s resilience secrets

The researchers harnessed the genetic diversity of maize, cultivated through selective breeding in diverse climates over centuries. They analyzed 129 varieties under stress conditions and examined the DNA of root microbes from over 3,000 samples.

The study pinpointed specific genes in maize plants that interact with particular bacteria, enhancing the plant’s resilience to environmental challenges.

A key finding was the role of Massilia bacteria, which gather around maize roots in low nitrogen, boosting lateral root growth and thus improving nutrient and water absorption.

Further research showed that maize roots lure Massilia with flavones, a secondary metabolite, but this requires a specific gene, underscoring the intricate relationship between maize genetics and microbial support.

Breeding tomorrow’s drought-resistant maize

The study paves the way for breeding maize that’s more resilient to drought and nutrient shortages, with genome and microbiome integration key to forecasting yields and boosting sustainability.

Dr. Caroline Marcon’s maize mutation database is crucial for exploring gene functions and their roles in plant-microbe interactions. Professor Hochholdinger emphasizes the potential impact on developing tougher maize varieties, highlighting a significant advance towards sustainable agriculture.

More about maize plants

Maize, also known as corn in some countries, is a cereal grain first domesticated by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico about 10,000 years ago. 

The leafy stalk of the plant produces pollen inflorescences and separate ovuliferous inflorescences called ears that yield kernels or seeds, which are fruits. Here are some key aspects of maize plants:

Origins and domestication

Maize is believed to have been derived from a wild grass called teosinte. It underwent significant changes due to selective breeding by early agricultural communities, resulting in the large cobs and kernels we are familiar with today.

It played a crucial role in the rise of Mesoamerican civilizations, with evidence suggesting its cultivation dates back at least 7,000 years.

Key characteristics

Maize plants vary in height, with some varieties growing over 3 meters tall. They have a robust stem that resembles bamboo canes and large leaves that grow from the stem.

The kernels come in multiple colors, including yellow, red, blue, and white, depending on the variety. Each ear of maize contains several hundred kernels.

Maize has a fibrous root system that can extend deep into the soil, which helps in stabilizing the plant and absorbing nutrients and water.

Cultivation requirements

Maize is adaptable to a wide range of climates but prefers warm weather and well-drained soils. It requires a lot of sunlight and is sensitive to frost.

It is typically planted in the spring and harvested in the late summer or autumn, depending on the local climate and variety.

Staple food

Maize is a staple food in many parts of the world, consumed directly by humans or used as livestock feed. It is also processed into a variety of food products, including cornmeal, corn syrup, and corn oil.

Beyond its use as food, maize is a key ingredient in biofuels (especially ethanol), bioplastics, and as a raw material in industrial processes.

The full study was published in the journal Nature Plants.


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