News | November 26, 2021

Microbiome Enables New Strategies For Healthy And Climate-Resilient Crops

A new study shows that apple trees inherit their microbiome to the same extent as their genes. The results lay the foundation for new breeding strategies for healthy and climate-robust fruit and vegetables. DEEP researcher Ayco Tack and former DEEP researcher Ahmed Abdelfattah now at TU Graz, were co-authors of the study.

Drought, severe weather events, record temperatures and emerging pathogens threaten the world's food supply:

For this reason, we need to make our crops more resilient without further polluting the environment with pesticides and fertilizers and develop more environmentally friendly and sustainable solutions. Microbiome research and management offer great potential to achieve these goals, says the first author in the study, Ahmed Abdelfattah from the Institute of Environmental Biotechnology at Graz and former researcher at Stockholm University.

The microbiome of apples is also “bred”
The interdisciplinary group of researchers compared the microbiome of modern domesticated apple crops – i.e. specifically bred and cultivated varieties – with the microbiome of their wild ancestors as well as with the microbiome of closely related species. With the help of molecular analyses and bioinformatic methods, the group was able to determine for the first time that the microbiome is inherited to the same extent as the genes.Apples that are genetically similar thus also harbour a similar microbiome:

- Fascinatingly, we found that our apple varieties still share some of their microbiome with their wild ancestors, which indicates that plants and their microbiome might have been evolving for thousands of years, says lecturer Ayco Tack at Department of Biology, Environment and Plant Sciences (DEEP) at Stockholm University.

The study shows that the microbiome being "bred" also has greatly changed over time. Until now, this has happened unintentionally and many microorganisms have been lost in the process. These lost microorganisms could now help us to make our crops fit for climate change again. This is because the focus of breeding now is no longer on the size and sweetness of the apples, but on their resilience and health:

- The research group is convinced that the microbiome of the wild ancestors originating from the Inner-Asian Tien Shan mountain range contains valuable microorganisms for this purpose, says Ahmed Abdelfattah.

Making healthy and resilient plants with microbiomes
It would be conceivable, for example, to change the plant microbiome through the targeted introduction of microorganisms in order to increase the resistance of the plants. This is what the Institute of Environmental Biotechnology at TU Graz specializes in and Marie Curie Fellow Ahmed Abdelfattah specifically chose it as a research location due to its expertise in the field of microbiome biotechnology.

- Some scientists have even been able to change the plant’s ability for nutrient intake, tolerate stresses like disease and drought, and the expression of some genes through microbiome manipulation. Our study could be applicable for other fruits and plants as well. These results could useful for future plant breeding programs because then we can aim to incorporate or eliminate desired or undesired microorganisms, says Ahmed Abdelfattah.

The new study was conducted by an international research group led by Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) together with Stockholm University, and published in the scientific journal New Phytologist.

Source: Stockholm University