17 July 2019

Utrecht researches plant-microbe interaction in roots

30 million for research into future-proof crops

Utrecht University has joined a new research programme for future-proof crops, which has received a 30 million dollar grant from the Danish Novo Nordisk Foundation. The Collaborative Crop Resilience Program (CCRP) focuses on improving the productivity and sustainability of agriculture by studying not the crops themselves, but the micro-organisms around them. Around 400,000 euros of this funding will go to the research led by microbiologist Ronnie de Jonge, studying the interaction between plants and microbes in the plant roots.

De micro-organismen in de wortels hebben een positief effect op de plant. Illustratie door Jan Karen Campbell.
Micro-organisms in the roots have positive effects on the plant (illustration: Jan Karen Campbell)

“Thousands of different micro-organisms live in the soil. But there are a lot less of them living around the roots, and there may be just a handful that live in the roots themselves. We’re going to compare the differences in the degree to which Arabidopsis, wheat, and lotus each allow micro-organisms into their roots. There’s an enormous difference between the plants’ degree of selection”, explains microbiologist Ronnie de Jonge, who will lead one of the projects within the CCR programme. “Which micro-organisms do they let in, and why do they let in some and keep out others? That’s what we aim to find out.”

Seeds

The hypothesis is that micro-organisms in the roots have a positive effect on the plant, for example by enhancing their growth or immune resistance. “Micro-organisms that occur in the roots of all three plants apparently have a talent for penetrating into the root. And those are the ones we want. Once we’ve determined which beneficial characteristics specific micro-organisms have, then we can selectively breed them and add them to seeds. That way, we can arm plants against droughts or plagues”, says De Jonge.

Adaptations

The team in Utrecht will primarily study Arabidopsis, the standard test model used in botanical research. Some of the research will also be conducted in Japan, where the standard plant used is the lotus, a plant with root nodules in which bacteria fix nitrogen in the soil. “In the cold north of Japan, the plant displays totally different adaptations than in the warmer south of the country. By transplanting plants and soil between the north and south, we’ll study the roles that the plant, the soil, and the micro-organisms play in adapting to cold and heat. That will enable us to make plants more future-proof.”

The CCR programme is a collaboration between researchers from the Netherlands, Denmark and the United States, and which received a grant of 30 million US Dollars on 12 June from the Novo Nordisk Foundation. The programme consists of three components. The projects Matrix and Interact will study the interactions between plants and microbes, both under and above the ground. The research by Ronnie de Jonge is called the InRoot project, and will begin work in the autumn.

Assistant Professor
Science - Biology - Environmental Biology - Plant-Microbe Interactions