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Roots and microbes: Bringing a complex underground ecology into the lab
Date:8/1/2012

t how a plant's genes influence the establishment of a microbial community in and around its roots, Dangl says.

Over the past 25 years, Dangl has used molecular biology to define the defense system that plants use to protect against pathogens, teasing out the roles of individual genes in the plant immune system. "Our studies have focused on binary interactions: one plant, one microbe, in controlled lab conditions," he explains. "We've learned a lot from those studies, but eventually you reach a point where you can keep drilling deeper into something you already know, or you can blaze a new trail." It was time, he decided, to investigate plant-microbe interactions in a way that better reflected the complex reality of life underground.

As many as 120 different types of bacteria might reside inside the root of a single plant, Dangl says, and the composition of that community is distinct from the microbial population in the local soil. "We want to know the molecular rules that guide the assembly of a community of microbes on the roots that helps a plant grow. Ecologists see this as a 120-variable problem. But I'd like to build it up from the bottom. I want to add complexity to the kinds of interactions we've been studying, but make it predictable."

So Dangl turned to the model plant that he has studied for most of his career, the white-flowered weed Arabidopsis thaliana. With graduate students Derek Lundberg and Sur Hererra-Paredes and postdoctoral fellow Sarah Lebeis, he planned an experiment to compare the populations of microbes in and around the roots of hundreds of Arabidopsis plants, grown in different soils and with different genetic backgrounds.

Lundberg left the lab and returned with buckets full of soil from two locations: a nearby North Carolina farm and an experimental plot of land on the UNC campus. The campus plot had not been farmed in more than 100 years, and therefore had a very different chemic
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Contact: Jennifer Michalowski
michalow@hhmi.org
301-215-8576
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Source:Eurekalert

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