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Friendly bacteria show key role in "priming" plant defences

  • Plant-beneficial soil bacteria can prime the immune system of maize for more efficient defence activation against future attacks by pests and diseases
  • Builds on recently published work showing that maize emits chemical signals which attract plant-beneficial soil bacteria to live among roots
  • Breeding maize with an increased capacity to exudate these chemicals could reduce pesticide use

New research into plant disease resistance shows that bacteria attracted to maize roots induce a state of 'early warning' in the cereal, resulting in a faster and stronger response to attack by pathogens or herbivores. The findings, published in Plant Signaling and Behavior, point to a possible mechanism to reduce the amount of pesticides used in the future if this natural defence mechanism can be exploited through breeding.

It has been known for some time that certain plants exude chemicals from their roots which attract organisms to the surrounding soil. Dr Andrew Neal of Rothamsted Research and Dr Jurriaan Ton of the University of Sheffield have now shown that the plants respond to the attracted bacteria with an 'induced systemic resistance', where the plant's natural resistance mechanisms to pathogens and herbivores are placed in an 'enhanced state of awareness'.

In a previous paper, Dr Neal and Dr Ton recently found that maize plants exude chemicals known as benzoxazinoids which attract soil bacteria. Once at the root surface, these bacteria increase the availability of important nutrients like iron and phosphorous, and so help maximise plant growth. They have now identified that the bacteria also act in a similar way as vaccinations in humans, enabling the maize to be more ready to defend itself from threats.

Dr Neal explained: "What we have now found is not only does maize recruit microbes by exuding benzoxazinoids, but maize plants respond to the presence of these beneficial microbes by acquiring an enhanced state of preparedness. We have identified that rhizobacteria prime transcription of maize defence genes and chemicals, which are important in systemic resistance against plant pests and diseases. Plants respond to attack in a much more powerful way and more quickly than plants whose roots have not been colonized by rhizobacteria. This response helps protect leaves from further damage."

Dr Ton said: "Now we have a better understanding of how and why maize attracts certain soil microbes we can explore the possibility of breeding maize, and potentially other cereals, with increased levels of root exudation of naturally occurring benzoxazinoids to 'woo' more beneficial soil bacteria, which in turn prime maize natural defences against pests of diseases. If successful, this could reduce the use of fungicides and insecticides which are applied to crops."

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the EU PURE project, supported by the European Commission through the Seventh Framework Programme.


Notes to editors

The paper on which this release is based is published in the January issue of Plant Signaling and Behavior.

About Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted Research, the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for around 170 years. It receives strategic funding from BBSRC to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production.

About University of Sheffield

With nearly 25,000 students from 125 countries, the University of Sheffield is one of the UK's leading and largest universities. A member of the Russell Group, it has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen's Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, and 2007).

These prestigious awards recognise outstanding contributions by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom's intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. Sheffield also boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and many of its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence around the world. The University's research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, ICI, Slazenger, and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. Its partnership with Leeds and York Universities in the White Rose Consortium has a combined research power greater than that of either Oxford or Cambridge.

For more information on the University's Department of Animal and Plant Sciences visit:


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £500M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see:
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Tags: crops microbes pests plants press release immunity