When under attack, plants can signal microbial friends for help

Oct 17, 2008
The green represents the beneficial bacterium Bacillus subtilis, which has formed a biofilm on the Arabidopsis root surface. Credit: University of Delaware/Thimmaraju Rudrappa

Researchers at the University of Delaware have discovered that when the leaf of a plant is under attack by a pathogen, it can send out an S.O.S. to the roots for help, and the roots will respond by secreting an acid that brings beneficial bacteria to the rescue.

The finding quashes the misperception that plants are "sitting ducks"--at the mercy of passing pathogens--and sheds new light on a sophisticated signaling system inside plants that rivals the nervous system in humans and animals.

The research was led by Harsh Bais, assistant professor of plant and soil sciences at UD, former postdoctoral researcher Thimmaraju Rudrappa, who is now a research scientist at the DuPont Co., Kirk Czymmek, associate professor of biological sciences and director of UD's Bio-Imaging Center, and Paul Paré, a biochemist at Texas Tech University.

The study is reported in the November issue of Plant Physiology and also is featured on the journal's cover. Rudrappa is the lead author of the research paper.

"Plants are a lot smarter than we give them credit for," says Bais from his laboratory at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute.

"People think that plants, rooted in the ground, are just sitting ducks when it comes to attack by harmful fungi or bacteria, but we've found that plants have ways of seeking external help," he notes.

In a series of laboratory experiments, the scientists infected the leaves of the small flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana with a pathogenic bacterium, Pseudomonas syringae. Within a few days, the leaves of the infected plants began yellowing and showing other symptoms of disease.

However, the infected plants whose roots had been inoculated with the beneficial microbe Bacillus subtilis were perfectly healthy.

Farmers often add B. subtilis to the soil to boost plant immunity. It forms a protective biofilm around plant roots and also has antimicrobial properties, according to Bais.

Using molecular biological tools, the scientists detected the transmission of a long-distance signal, a "call for help," from the leaves to the roots in the plants that had Bacillus in the soil. The roots responded by secreting a carbon-rich chemical--malic acid.

All plants biosynthesize malic acid, Bais explains, but only under specific conditions and for a specific purpose--in this case, the chemical was actively secreted to attract Bacillus. Magnified images of the roots and leaves showed the ratcheted-up defense response provided by the beneficial microorganisms.

Czymmek captured the definitive proof using a state-of-the-art LSM 510 DUO laser scanning confocal microscope in UD's Bio-Imaging Center. UD is among only a few universities that own one of these million-dollar instruments.

"A plant is a challenge to image because at least half of it is below ground in the form of roots," Czymmek notes. "Here at UD, we use modern technologies including hydroponic growth systems with see-through chambers and sophisticated optical techniques that will enhance the image clarity when visualizing plants and the pathogens attacking them."

Bais and his colleagues are now working to determine what the aerial signal is from the infected leaf to the root using different pathogen-associated molecular markers (PAMPs).

The research not only sheds light on the remarkable signaling system in plants, but also is important to understand how invasive plants conquer new territory with the aid of plant microbes.

"Plants can't move from where they are, so the only way they can accrue good neighbors is through chemistry," Bais notes.

Source: University of Delaware

Explore further: Experts 'grasping at straws' to save near-extinct rhino

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Reducing arsenic accumulation in rice grains

Dec 10, 2014

Arsenic is a highly toxic element derived from both natural and human sources, the accumulation of which can trigger cancer and skin diseases in humans. A key human health concern is the contamination of ...

Rare orchids keep quiet on pollination process

Dec 04, 2014

Orchids located throughout the south-west continued to excite and amaze locals during the recent wildflower season as conservationists work to secure the endangered specimens.

Recommended for you

A vegetarian carnivorous plant

1 hour ago

Carnivorous plants catch and digest tiny animals in order and derive benefits for their nutrition. Interestingly the trend towards vegetarianism seems to overcome carnivorous plants as well. The aquatic carnivorous bladderwort, ...

The origin of the language of life

2 hours ago

The genetic code is the universal language of life. It describes how information is encoded in the genetic material and is the same for all organisms from simple bacteria to animals to humans. However, the ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.