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Plants, too, have ways to manage freeloaders

that when roots explore the soil and encounter bacteria, they will nodulate them, but then the plant will evaluate how much nitrogen it's getting from the bacteria and the efficiency with which it's getting the nitrogen," Simms explained. "If the bacteria are doing a good job, the plant will start supporting it and the nodule will grow. But if the bacteria are not as beneficial, the plant will not support it, and the nodule doesn't grow."

Some researchers have suggested that one way plants like soybeans can keep nodules small is by limiting oxygen, but this hypothesis needs further testing, she said.

Simms noted that crop plants such as soybeans have been shown to produce smaller nodules when their bacteria were deprived of atmospheric nitrogen, which prevented them from sharing nitrogen with the plant. However, no one had asked whether plants could detect natural differences in nitrogen fixation among the microbes they encounter in the soil.

Interestingly, not all plants seem to nodulate the best bacterial species, which could mean that strains also differ in how easily they can enter the plant roots to initiate nodulation. This could explain why soybean and other legume crops in fields inoculated with the supposedly most efficient strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria do not always take up that strain - an expensive problem for farmers.

"The most effective strain is not always best at competing for nodules," Simms said. "Is it the plant or the microbe that determines this? Have we bred out of crop plants the ability to choose their root bacteria?"


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Source:University of California - Berkeley


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