What would producing fertilizer in your own basement look like? Legumes, such as peas, beans and various species of clover, get the organic nitrogen they need for their growth from symbiotic bacteria in the soil through specialized structures in their roots. A team led by cell biologist Professor Thomas Ott of the Faculty of Biology at the University of Friborg has now detected a factor in root cells that plants need for initial contact with these bacteria said to be associated with roots, that live in the ground. They discovered a protein found only in legumes called symbiotic formin 1 (SYFO1) and demonstrated the essential role it plays in the symbiosis. In collaboration with the molecular biologist Prof. newspaper Current biology.
When a root lump bacteria encounters the roots of a legume in the soil, the SYFO1 protein causes the tiny hairs on the root to change the direction of their growth. They thus wrap around the potential symbiotic partner. Thanks to these bacterial auxiliaries, legumes do not need nitrogen fertilizer, unlike other plants. “If we understood precisely how symbiosis comes into being, we could give back to cultivated plants this special property that they lost in evolution,” says Ott. He and Grosse are both members of the Cluster of Excellence CIBSS – Center for Integrative Biological Signaling Studies. Ott’s research at CIBSS involves studying the spatial organization of signaling pathways that enable the symbiotic relationship with the symbiotic bacteria in the first place. Grosse, meanwhile, focuses in his work in Friborg on the cytoskeleton of animal cells. “As part of our collaboration, made possible by CIBSS, we were able to bring our expertise in different areas of specialization in the best possible way,” says Ott.
The team demonstrated in the legume Medicago truncatula (barrel medic) that the root hairs of plants in which the SYFO1 gene has been deactivated are virtually no longer able to wrap around bacteria. In other studies, researchers found that the protein binds to actin, a component of the cytoskeleton, and at the same time to the cell wall outside of cells, thereby changing the direction of its growth: instead to grow straight, the tiny hairs now change direction and form a loop around the bacteria.
“SYFO1 represents a particular innovative step in the evolution of plants,” explains Ott. “While formin proteins are present in many forms in cells and interact with actin, this special type responds only to symbiotic signals from bacteria.”
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