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Crop Biotech Update

Scientists to Harness Plant Microbiome to Improve Food Supply

July 20, 2016

Scientists from Duke University are exploring on how to manipulate plant microbiome to increase food supply. Plants, similar to the human body, are inhabited by millions of microscopic bacteria and fungi which affect plant health, growth, and development. Previous findings have exhibited that plant's genes can manipulate the microbiome in the lab, but only a few studies have measured such genetic control in the field.

"There can be thousands of different kinds of bacteria within a single leaf," said first author Maggie Wagner, graduate student at Duke during the time of the study. "The question is: what factors influence the microbes that end up living inside the plant?"

Wagner and colleagues used DNA sequencing techniques to elucidate the relative effects of plant genes, environment and other factors on microbiome. They specifically used spindly wildflower (Boechera stricta) in the study. They germinated genetically identical lines of the wildflower which were transplanted in three experimental gardens. After two to four years, they harvested the plants and sequenced the bacterial DNA in the roots and leaves of 440 plants. About 4,000 types of bacteria were found living inside the plants, mostly in roots. The most common bacterial groups found belong to Proteobacteria and Actinobacteria. They also found that on the average, about 5 percent or less of the variation in microbial diversity was influenced by plant genetics. The plant's genetic control on the microbiome was stronger in the leaves that in the roots. Soil pH, moisture, and temperature were found to be the major environmental factors that determined the plant's bacterial makeup.

"Microbiomes could be a very useful tool for improving agricultural productivity in the face of population growth and climate change," Wagner said, "but designing an effective breeding program could be a lot harder than some people think it is."

Read the news article from Duke University.