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Digging into the plant and microbe relationship

Alan Flurry

A new project by UGA researchers will explore the largely unknown relationship between plants and soil microbes, generating new information that’s expected to be a game changer for plant science.

The five-year project, funded by an $11.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, will deliver findings ranging from basic information about plants and microbes to applied knowledge that can be used by plant breeders to improve agricultural crops.

Led by Jeff Bennetzen, the team will focus on the contributions of an important class of microbes, called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, in the performance of sorghum, a major grain crop and source of biomass.

“Our study will look at the degree to which field conditions influence whether AMF are positive or negative contributors, and try to identify the plant genes—and to some extent the AMF genes—that determine whether this is a positive or a negative contribution,” said Bennetzen, Norman and Doris Giles Professor in Genetics and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar.

Microbes not always useful

All plants interact with microbes in their environment that can promote or diminish their productivity, according to Bennetzen. AMF are usually viewed as positive contributors, helping plants acquire nutrients like phosphate and water and providing resistance to certain types of root diseases.

But AMF are not always useful, and there are many unknowns. For example, plant-AMF interactions are different in different environments—based on variables like soil type or amount of rainfall—and scientists don’t know why. To illuminate the basic rules of the plant-AMF relationship, Bennetzen and his collaborators will conduct tests in two locations: Arizona, where it’s hot and dry with sandy soils, and Georgia, where it’s wetter and there’s an abundance of clay in the soil.


Image: Close-up of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi connecting roots of plant hosts. Via.

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