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Inside knowledge - how do bacteria living within wheat plants affect their hosts?

Wheat seedlings grown in sterile conditions.

Scientists at Rothamsted Research develop technique to study the effects of beneficial bacteria that live inside wheat plants.

Most plants have harmless bacteria living inside their tissues, known as ‘endophytes’, which can benefit plants by providing nutrients and suppressing diseases. It may one day be possible to enhance crop plants by altering the species of endophytes living within them, but we still know little about the relationship between plants and endophytes. Scientists have developed a new technique to grow wheat plants without any endophytes, allowing them to introduce different bacterial species into them, which will reveal more about this interaction. The researchers hope that the method could give insights enabling the production of cereal plants with increased yields. The work was carried out at Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from the BBSRC, with support from the University of Reading and Novozymes. It was published in May in the journal Scientific Reports.

Bacterial endophytes live in the spaces between the cells of plant tissues. They can enter plants via the roots, and may live inside stems and leaves, moving through the same vessels as water and sugars. Inside wheat grains, the scientists found that the embryo-derived plants had very few, if any, endophytes. By dissecting the grains and allowing embryonic plants to grow in sterile conditions, they created seedlings lacking endophytes. This allowed them to test whether a range of bacteria were able to enter the seedlings and live as endophytes. The team chose 24 bacterial species that had previously been found in the tissue within wheat plants. They found that 23 of them could colonise this tissue, and the introduced bacteria were found in the leaves after they were introduced to the roots. However, other bacterial species tested as controls were unable penetrate the plants.

Dr Rebekah Robinson, who performed the research, said: “The finding that some bacteria were unable to become endophytic, even in the absence of competing bacteria is exciting, and suggests that the host plant operates a gating system to control entry from bacteria that live around the roots. It will be fascinating to discover how this operates”.

Dr Tim Mauchline, scientist in the Microbial Ecology group at Rothamsted Research, said: “The ability to create wheat plants in which we can control the species of bacterial endophytes will be invaluable for research. It allows us to determine the precise role that particular microbes have on plant health in the absence of a background of other competing species”.  

Wheat is one of the three main cereals grown worldwide, so the crop is a major focus of efforts to improve the quality and quantity of grain produced. Modifying the community of endophyte species inside of wheat plants, perhaps by applying a coating to seeds before planting, could help tackle plant diseases, improving yields for farmers and helping to feed more people with limited resources. To use this approach to control diseases in crops, researchers need to better understand the diversity and effects of endophytes, and how they colonise plants.



Notes to Editors

About the University of Reading

The University of Reading is ranked among the top 1% of universities in the world, with a reputation for research excellence, innovative teaching and strong links with business. Since its creation as a University 90 years ago, the University has helped to tackle some of the world’s most pressing concerns. Reading is the best university in the UK for agriculture (QS World University Rankings by Subject 2016). Find out more:  

About Novozymes

Novozymes is the world leader in biological solutions. Together with customers, partners and the global community, we improve industrial performance while preserving the planet’s resources and helping build better lives. As the world’s largest provider of enzyme and microbial technologies, our bioinnovation enables higher agricultural yields, low-temperature washing, energy-efficient production, renewable fuel and many other benefits that we rely on today and in the future. We call it Rethink Tomorrow.

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About Rothamsted Research

We are the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for over 170 years. Our mission is to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production.

Our strength lies in the integrated, multidisciplinary approach to research in plant, insect and soil science.

Rothamsted Research is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). In 2013-2014 Rothamsted Researched received a total of £32.9M from the BBSRC.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (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, BBSRC invested over £509M in world-class bioscience in 2014-15. 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.

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