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Soil ‘bugs’ help plants survive

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Plants are often slow to respond to climate change. Lucky for them, microbes in the soil adapt quickly, doing most of the work so plants can survive.

As reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a new study shows how plants interact with microbes to survive the effects of global changes, including increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations, warmer temperatures, and altered precipitation patterns.

“We found that these changes in the plants happen primarily because of what global changes do to the below ground microbes rather than the plant itself,” says biologist Jen Lau, who works with Jay Lennon, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University.

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“Drought stress affects microbes, and they, in turn, drive plants to flower earlier and help plants grow and reproduce when faced with drought.”

The team conducted a multi-generational experiment that manipulated environmental factors above and below ground while paying close attention to the interaction between the plants and microbes in the soil. Close examination of this particle partnership revealed some interesting results.

Researchers already knew that drought stress reduced plant growth and altered their life cycle. The team was surprised, though, to observe that the plants were slow to evolve and, instead, microbes did most of the work of helping plants survive in new, drier environments. This happened because the microbes were quick to adapt to the changing environment.

This newfound aspect of their relationship gives plants an additional strategy for survival, Lau says.

“When faced with environmental change, plants may not be limited to traditional ‘adapt or migrate’ strategies,” she says. “Instead, they may also benefit from a third approach—interacting with complementary species such as the diverse microbes found in the soil.”

Lau and Lennon’s research is funded in part by Michigan State’s AgBioResearch.

Source: Michigan State University

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