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Can insights from invasion ecology promote benefits from root mutualisms in plant production?

Climate change and the need to use resources (water, fertiliser, pesticides etc.) more efficiently calls for crops that are more resilient to environmental fluctuations and stress whilst still supporting stable yields. Plants establish beneficial symbiotic interactions with microbes that can sustain plant nutrition and growth. These interactions are already crucial for the stability of some crop yields, particularly those of legumes. Similarly, in natural ecosystems symbioses between plants and microbes facilitate the establishment and spread of invasive plant populations, to which microbes confer similar benefits as in crops. The historical exposure of organisms to biotic interactions over evolutionary timescales, or so-called eco-evolutionary experience (EEE), has been used to explain the success of such invasions. Could consideration of the EEE concept shed new light on how to improve mutualistic interactions between domestic crops and soil microbes?

Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) seedling nurseries and plantations lie adjacent to wild populations in the fynbos vegetation of South Africa. This is an example of a legume crop in which root microbial symbioses play important roles for plant nutrition and growth, both in cultivation and the wild. Rooibos represents an ideal system in which to explore whether modern cultivars preserve the ability to benefit from rhizobia and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi compared to the wild ancestors.Image credit: A. Kamath (via Flickr).

In a recent Editor’s Choice Viewpoint published in AoBP, Ramoneda et al. develop a new framework using the EEE concept that builds upon the parallels between microbial symbioses in crops and invasive plants. This framework can inform whether modern crops preserve the ability to obtain symbiotic benefits from microbes, and whether breeding programs could target symbioses for future plant production. The authors conclude by highlighting the importance of considering EEE of crop wild relatives and their beneficial microbes in breeding programs. This will allow modern cultivars to take further advantage of symbiotic services in the face of adverse environmental conditions. 

Researcher highlight

Josep Ramoneda

Josep Ramoneda was trained in microbial ecology at Imperial College London, and in 2016 moved to Switzerland to conduct a PhD in plant-microbe interactions at ETH Zurich. Josep is currently at the end of his PhD looking at the assembly and biogeography of symbiotic microbial communities in distinct soils and plant populations in South Africa. He is also involved in describing the distribution and functions of cyanobacterial mat communities in Antarctica and mapping cyanobacterial biomass in the global ocean. 

Josep is a microbial ecologist interested in explaining the mechanisms that drive bacterial and fungal distributions and functions across temporal and spatial scales. Most of his research is based on applying insights from ecological invasion theory to understand why we find particular microbes in different habitats. He has applied these concepts to explain temporal changes in bacterial community diversity, and to show ways to explore untapped microbial functions to the benefit of plant production.

William Salterhttps://williamtsalter.com/
William (Tam) Salter is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences and Sydney Institute of Agriculture at the University of Sydney. He has a bachelor degree in Ecological Science (Hons) from the University of Edinburgh and a PhD in plant ecophysiology from the University of Sydney. Tam is interested in the identification and elucidation of plant traits that could be useful for ecosystem resilience and future food security under global environmental change. He also has an active interest in effective scientific communication.

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