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A consortium headed by the University of Amsterdam will receive a grant of over €20 million to study the relationship between plants and the microorganisms that live on their roots. In due course, this project is expected to make a significant contribution towards the sustainable improvement of the global food supply.

Plants, roots
Credits: Jorn van Heck

A Gravitation grant from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) has been awarded to an ambitious consortium of Dutch life scientists seeking to study the interaction between plants and their root microbiomes using the latest available techniques. The root microbiome is the community of bacteria and fungi that inhabit the interior and surface of plant roots, as well as the surrounding soil. The bacteria and fungi help mobilise nutrients from the soil, protect the plant against stresses such as drought, and play an import role in plant health. However, little is currently known about how plants recruit these friendly microorganisms and how they in turn assist and protect their hosts.

The project has been dubbed MiCRop and is a collaborative venture between the University of Amsterdam (Prof. Harro Bouwmeester, project leader), Wageningen University (Prof. Christa Testerink and Prof. Marcel Dicke), VU Amsterdam (Prof. Toby Kiers), Utrecht University (Prof. Corné Pieterse) and the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (Prof. Jos Raaijmakers). According to Karen Maex, Rector Magnificus of the University of Amsterdam: 'This study will lead to groundbreaking insights into the role of microorganisms in plant health and production. The results will make a significant contribution towards the sustainable supply of healthy food, one of today's biggest societal challenges.'

Professor; Harro Bouwmeester; Plant Hormone Biology
Credits: Dirk Gillissen

The project is headed by Harro Bouwmeester, professor of Plant Hormone Biology at the University of Amsterdam. He explains, 'We will investigate a large number of crucial food crops, such as cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, grains, cucumbers and pumpkins as well as their wild relatives. We will use the latest techniques to study how the association between plants and the bacteria and fungi on their roots changes under suboptimal conditions, such as drought, nutrient-poor soil or the presence of diseases and insects. We will investigate which mechanisms plants use to recruit friendly microbes and with which processes the microbes in turn enhance the plant’s resistance to stress.’

Improving agriculture and the global food supply

The researchers are not only concerned with acquiring fundamental knowledge, but also with its application. According to Bouwmeester, 'We're working with some 25 partners from the plant breeding and biologicals industry. The collaboration with eight CGIAR institutes is also very important to us.' CGIAR, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, is a global, intergovernmental organisation dedicated to the improvement of agriculture and the global food supply, particularly in developing countries. According to Bouwmeester: 'In these countries, in particular, there is much to gain in terms of improving plant tolerance to a multitude of stresses, such as drought and pests. With this study, we hope to make a significant contribution to that.'