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Plant protection of the future may come from the plants themselves

Researchers from Aarhus University provide a thorough insight into how the interaction between plant chemistry and microbiomes is affected during an attack by a fungal pathogen. This knowledge improves the possibilities of exploiting plant chemistry and microbiomes in crop protection

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Researchers from AU Flakkebjerg have studied how plants can keep pests, diseases and fungi at bay by secreting certain substances. This could be used as a plant defence of the future Photo: Enoch Narh Kudjordjie

We are more in this world than just ourselves. We all have chemical and microbial signatures that influence our well-being in one way or another. In medicine, the use of probiotics rather than antibiotics has become high on the agenda. However, humans and animals are not the only ones who have a close relationship with their microflora. Plants exhibit similar relationships with their environments too. Just as in humans, microbes play a major role in plant health and resistance to plant diseases. 

At Aarhus University in Flakkebjerg, researchers are studying plants, plant health and plant diseases caused by microbial pathogens. The ability of plants to fight microbial pathogens such as bacteria and fungi is to a large extent determined by plant genes that regulate plant defence capabilities. In a new study, researchers from AU Flakkebjerg have studied how plants with different resistance traits interact with their microbes to respond to pathogen attack.

"We have investigated what happens in plants when they are attacked by a pathogen. What changes occur in the plant itself as well as its associated microbial communities (i.e., microbiome) during a pathogen attack? What makes some plants resistant while others are not? To answer these questions, we explored the interaction between plant chemical compounds and the plethora of microbial communities associated with the plant. This is not really a new research area, but by applying new and modern technologies in this study, we have been able to get a much more detailed insight into what is actually going on, in terms of interactions between plant chemicals and microbes," says Assistant Professor Enoch Narh Kudjordjie, one of the lead researchers from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University. 

Plants have their own integrated defence system

Like humans, plants have their own immune system, which plays a huge role in disease prevention.  Plant defence is tightly regulated by plant secondary metabolites, hormones, and beneficial microbes in and around the plant. This defence system and its activation is complex, and we are yet to understand in detail how these components come together to help the plant protect itself from attack. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel as scientists are making strides in studying these defence components by analysing different plant genotypes, using new techniques such as next generation sequencing and analytical chemistry platforms.

"We have been working with a model plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana. Arabidopsis genotypes have different levels of resistance to Fusarium oxysporum, a fungal pathogen that attacks several plant species. In the present work we used two Arabidopsis genotypes; one that is resistant and another that is susceptible to Fusarium oxysporum. These contrasting genotypes were chosen to enable us to gain a comprehensive insight into the metabolic and microbial changes which underline resistance and susceptibilities of plants during pathogen attack," explains Enoch Narh Kudjordjie. 

Disease infection

To begin with, the researchers infected two-week-old Arabidopsis genotypes growing in field soil in a greenhouse with the fungal pathogen Fusarium oxysporum. To examine the changes during the period of infection, they collected root and shoot samples at 5 day intervals, starting from 5 and lasting until 25 days after infection. They confirmed the infections by qPCR and by monitoring disease symptoms.

"This way we were absolutely sure that the plants were actually infected. The qPCR test showed a clear difference between the two genotypes, with the resistant genotype having a much lower level of the pathogen than the susceptible one. 

Plant chemistry and microbiome are unique

"We then continued to explore the differences that may exist in the chemistry and microbiomes in the two genotypes., and we found large differences. As expected, the plant metabolites and hormones studied were distinct in both the healthy and diseased plants, confirming the involvement of certain plant chemical molecules in mediating plant defence. Likewise, we found that microbial composition, as well as microbial community networks, were distinct in healthy and diseased resistant and susceptible plants. Moreover, beneficial bacteria such as the genera Pseudomonas and Rhizobium were mostly enriched in the rhizosphere of infected plants, suggesting an active recruitment of microbes to resist pathogen invasion,” explains Enoch Narh Kudjordjie. 

Plant genes, chemistry and microbial communities are key players

“From a more comprehensive perspective, the present work has deepened our understanding of how plants defend themselves against a fungal pathogen. More importantly, we found a strong and unique association between individual defence metabolites and specific microbes in the healthy and diseased plants of the different genotypes. Further analysis of the genes responsible for plant defence against the pathogen revealed several mutations in various chemical and hormonal pathways in the susceptible plant compared with the resistant plant. These results strongly confirmed that three underlying host components (genes, metabolites and microbiomes), interactively control the plant defence," says Enoch Narh Kudjordjie.

"Simply put, we found that individual plant genotypes have a unique set of genes that regulate biological activities including metabolic processes mediating the assembly of specific microbiomes during different physiological states of the plant. However, the microbes in the soil also influence what happens in the plant," explains Enoch Narh Kudjordjie.

Natural plant protection in the future

Imagine a future where plants are cultivated with optimised yield and other agronomic and economic gains without the use of synthetic chemicals? That will improve human health and also eliminate environmental pollution from agrochemicals. So far, accumulating evidence is pointing to that possibility, and the current findings from the AU researchers are pivotal to future research efforts in developing natural products for plant protection.

"Although these findings are exciting, we need to harness our knowledge and integrate it into future disease control strategies. One approach from the plant side would be to develop plant genotypes with enhanced levels of defensive metabolites to attract certain microorganisms to fight specific pathogens. This implies that plant breeders would have to include the plant chemistry in their toolbox. Another strategy is to develop microbial inoculants including several beneficial microbes that can optimally enhance plant fitness in varying environments. We are quite optimistic of utilising microbiomes as plant protectants as well as a possibility to grow “super” crops that are capable of defending themselves against pathogens in the future," says Enoch Narh Kudjordjie

Additional information

We strive to ensure that all our articles live up to the Danish universities' principles for good research communication (scroll down to find the English version on the web-site). Because of this the article will be supplemented with the following information:
Colaborators Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University

The research is funded by Aarhus University (project number 22550) and by the Danish Foundation for Independent Research (DFF) grant number 23844.

Conflict of interest None
Read more "Fusarium oxysporum Disrupts Microbiome-Metabolome Networks in Arabidopsis thaliana Roots" is published the journal Microbiology Spectrum. It is authored by Enoch Narh Kudjordjie, Kourosh Hooshmand, Rumakanta Sapkota, Behrooz Darbani, Inge S. Fomsgaard and Mogens Nicolaisen. 

Professor Mogens Nicolaisen, Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University. Email: mn@agro.au.dk