Root Microbiomes Encourage Drought Resistance in Crop Plants

Certain plant species appear to recruit bacteria that help them resist the ill effects of drought conditions. Research at the University of Toronto supports the hypothesis that drought resistance in crop plants is linked to a variety of environmental conditions, including the microbes on plants’ roots.

  • drought
    Increasing drought conditions around the globe demand a concerted effort to adapt agriculture to a changing world.
    Photo by GettyImages/no_limit_pictures

  • drought

New research from the University of Toronto, Mississauga, is proving that beneficial bacteria in and around root systems are more than helpful for plants — they’re often critical for drought resistance.

The plant root microbiome encompasses a robust community of microorganisms that live both in and on plant roots. Like their counterparts in the human digestive system, these organisms act as an interface between the plant and the greater world, boosting its nutrient uptake and improving overall growth and development. Of particular interest to researchers, plants that foster specific bacterial populations within their root systems tend to be more drought-resistant.

To determine the reasons for this trait, researchers grew 30 plant species from the Toronto area in identical conditions. They tested individuals of each species with a simulated drought to see how they’d respond when compared with their control-group fellows. The researchers found that closely related plants exhibited more similar microbe populations in and around their roots than more distantly related plants did.

These results aren’t necessarily surprising, as closely linked animal species, such as humans and apes, also have similar gut microbiomes. But the research may help farmers grow crops that can better withstand drought conditions, because the results offer insight into why some plant strains can utilize bacteria to resist drought while others cannot.

This experiment reveals more of the complex web of interactions taking place between the plant roots, their associated bacteria, and the surrounding soil — a web that will take time and effort to untangle. Deciphering these interactions might be key to sustaining plants in an increasingly drought-prone world, and could add some much-needed stability to the global food system. Learn more about global efforts to increase food security and crop sustainability by visiting CGIAR, an international group supporting crop plant research.

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