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Training parasites to work better with plants

Biologists in Utrecht have seen how a parasite can quickly adapt to a variant that is beneficial to both the plant and itself. This is good news for our crops.

Training parasites to work better with plants

Parasites, or parasitic bacteria, have a rather bad reputation. But they seem to be able to adapt well from benefactor to partner.

Biologists from Utrecht University have been studying insects – bacteria – that you find on plant roots for some time now. Then they look: how do they help the plant? What do they do to maintain plant health? How do they help with diseases or deficiency? For example in case of lack of water or nutrition. But in this study, the question was more specific: How does the parasite adapt to the plant?

They went to see it in the lab. Because if you go out in nature or in a field to look at those creatures, there are a huge number of them. Do you want to know: who does what? Then you have to go to look at each piece. In this study, they chose a species known to have a positive effect on plants in the field. Only in the laboratory something different happened: the plants got sick and died.

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What they did: Every time a plant threatened to die, they removed the bacteria and then put it into a new healthy plant of the same variety. They kept repeating this for half a year and in the end the plants were no longer sick, but much healthier than no bacteria. The parasite gets to know the plant better and better and is already trained to achieve a well-functioning relationship.

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But how can this help our crops? Microbes are already widely used in growing plants. We now know it is very important. But the formula is still tricky and what’s in the lab doesn’t always translate to the field because there are so many factors involved.

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What they’re hoping for: If we train the bacteria for each plant species, they might work better in real life. The seeds are already given a kind of coating with additives that will make them grow better. You can adjust this for each seed. Thanks to research like this, if you know which bacteria work on which plant, and if those bacteria are also trained to work with that plant, then hopefully you’ll get stronger, healthier plants.

Well, this was lab research, so of course you still wanted to research: If you add that trained bacteria to the seed and it goes into the soil, will it work too? Because maybe you train them to work with that plant, but then they don’t get along well with the rest of the microbes. This is what they want to discover in the near future.

In this audio you can hear researcher Ronnie de Jonge from the University of Utrecht. Read more about the research here: Plant and parasite reconcile very quickly. The paper can be found in Nature Communications: The rapid evolution of bacterial exchange in plant roots.

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