U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Bacteria Living Within Plant Roots Affect Where and How Plants Allocate Carbon for Growth
Published: November 16, 2016
Posted: March 16, 2017

Bacteria within plant root tissues influence the size and shape of plant leaves and roots, as well as how plants allocate carbon toward leaves, stems, or roots.

The Science
Plant traits, such as root and leaf area, influence how plants interact with their environment, and bacteria living within plant tissues can determine morphology (plant form and structure) and physiology (how they function). To understand how different microbes shaped plant morphology and physiology, researchers inoculated cottonwood seedlings with three different strains of root-dwelling bacteria. They found that the bacteria did not change photosynthesis rates or total biomass, but bacteria regulated where carbon was allocated and how plants used it. Additionally, the researchers found closely related bacteria can have vastly different effects on plant growth.

The Impact
Since plants interact with their environment through their traits, bacteria may be an important middleman in determining how plants will respond to changing environmental conditions.

Bacteria living within plant tissues (endophytes) can change how plants express traits such as root and leaf growth rates and the ratio of root to leaves. Small changes in these traits could build up to alter how plants survive, adapt, and compete within their environment. In a recent study, researchers either inoculated cottonwood seedlings with one of three endophytic bacterial stains or left the plant un-inoculated as a control. They then looked at several responses including root and leaf growth rate, plant biomass, photosynthetic rate, and the ratio of roots to leaves. They found that inoculation was linked to an increase in root and leaf growth rate, but that this increase in growth rate did not lead to an increase in plant biomass or photosynthetic efficiency. These findings indicate bacterial endophytes can change where and how carbon is used in a plant, but may not increase the overall amount of carbon fixed by photosynthesis and stored in the plant’s biomass.

Contacts (BER PM)
Daniel Stover, SC-23.1, Daniel.Stover@science.doe.gov, 301-903-0289

(PI Contact)
Aimee T. Classen      
University of Vermont

Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER), Genomic Science program as part of the Plant-Microbe Interfaces Scientific Focus Area project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Additional funding was provided by BER’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program under award number DE-SC0010562.

Henning, J., et al. 2016. “Root Bacterial Endophytes Alter Plant Phenotype, but not Physiology,” PeerJ  4, e2606. DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2606. (Reference link)

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science
  • Research Area: Carbon Cycle, Nutrient Cycling
  • Research Area: Microbes and Communities
  • Research Area: Plant Systems and Feedstocks, Plant-Microbe Interactions

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER,SC-23.2 Biological Systems Science Division, BER


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