Unexpected Complexity: A 3D Look into Plant Root Relationships with Nitrogen-Fixing Bacteria

February 27, 2019

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Root nodules, which allow some bacteria to fix nitrogen into soils for greater plant productivity, have a surprisingly complex metabolism, which could be optimized to develop more sustainable agriculture.
Root nodules, which allow some bacteria to fix nitrogen into soils for greater plant productivity, have a surprisingly complex metabolism, which could be optimized to develop more sustainable agriculture.
Image courtesy of Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory

The Science

By taking nitrogen out of the air and turning it into plant nutrients, some bacteria help plants like beans, peas, and clovers thrive. How? A study shows that the traditional view of this symbiotic relationship doesn't capture the entire picture. Scientists resolved a 3D map of the metabolic products of bacteria found in plant root nodules. This spatial perspective could help unravel the overall complexity of these highly interdependent organisms.

The Impact

As these bacteria interact with legumes like soybeans, nodules grow on the roots of the plant. In these nodules, bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen into molecules the plants need to grow. Understanding the metabolic processes occurring within these nodules is essential to develop more sustainable agricultural practices for food crops used all over the world.

Summary

Previous studies led scientists to believe the distribution of bacterially derived metabolic by-products within the nodules was uniform. Scientists from EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a Department of Energy Office of Science user facility, joined with colleagues at the University of Missouri and the George Washington University to dig deep into the metabolic structure of soybean root nodules. They used one of EMSL's high-field Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometers to visualize the array of metabolites within the nodules. Of the approximately 140 regulating substances identified, some were located together in distinct anatomical compartments. A few, however, were more unevenly distributed throughout the middle of the nodule, where the bacteria reside. This discovery points to a previously unrecognized biochemical complexity in the nodules that are key for symbiotic plant-microbe interactions. Armed with this understanding, scientists can suggest ways to optimize crop production and sustainability.

Contact

Biological and Environmental Research Program Manager
Paul Bayer
Department of Energy, Office of Science
(301) 903-5324

Principal Investigator
Christopher Anderton
Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory
Christopher.Anderton@pnnl.gov  

Funding

This work was supported by the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, including support of the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a DOE Office of Science user facility; the DOE Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship; University of Missouri's Gus. T. Ridgel Fellowship; George Washington Carver Fellowship; and the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Program.

Publications

D. Velic?kovic?, B.J. Agtuca, S.A. Stopka, A. Vertes, D.W. Koppenaal, L. Pa?a-Toli?, G. Stacey, and C.R. Anderton, "Observed metabolic asymmetry within soybean root nodules reflects unexpected complexity in rhizobacteria-legume metabolite exchange." The ISME Journal 12, 2335 (2018). [DOI: 10.1038/s41396-018-0188-8]

Related Links

Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory science highlight: Unexpected Complexity: A Three-dimensional Look into Plant Root Relationships with Nitrogen-fixing Bacteria

Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory website: 6-Tesla high-field Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer