This image shows part of a plant root amid the diverse microbes inhabiting the rhizosphere, the region of soil surrounding plant roots. [Image 1 of 2 related images. See Image 2.]
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Below the soil surface, plant roots navigate a world teeming with microbes -- both helpful and hostile. Complex interactions between roots and their soil-dwelling neighbors are critical to plant health and productivity.
Building on longstanding strengths in plant science, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) researchers lead two major initiatives to better understand these vital root-microbe interactions. One project seeks to optimize sorghum's biofuel potential. The other project, taking place at the Center for Root and Rhizobiome Innovation, funded by a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, aims to improve health and productivity of agricultural crops.
Researchers are initially focusing on corn, but their findings and new biological tools developed through this project will apply to studying and improving other crops, including soybeans, says Edgar Cahoon, the George W. Holmes Professor of Biochemistry, who co-leads the project with Jim Alfano, the Charles Bessey Professor of Plant Pathology.
Taking a systems approach, UNL researchers are investigating genetic and metabolic diversity across corn varieties. They're seeking to understand how root metabolism determines the chemical signals that roots emit, the subsequent effect on soil microbes and, ultimately, corn health and productivity.
A key aim is developing new biological tools that will enable researchers to use their findings to precisely modify plant genomes, targeting specific traits such as drought resistance or yield. Technological advances allow researchers to introduce large numbers of genes, speeding the rate of crop advancements, says Cahoon. The researchers will use UNLís extensive agricultural research facilities to test and refine their enhanced crops in the greenhouse and the field.
"Nebraska has had a reputation of being at the forefront of plant genetic improvement, and this will take us to the next level," says Cahoon. "This project will have considerable benefit for agriculture."
This research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (grant OIA 15-57417). (Date image taken: 2015; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: March 22, 2017)