Back to the Roots
A major challenge of mankind is to feed the increasing human population in a sustainable manner. Currently more than one third of the crop yields are lost due to abiotic and biotic stress factors, such as drought, salinity, pests and diseases. Future increases in crop yields will have to be achieved with reduced input of fertilizers and pesticides and frequently on sub-optimal soils (‘more with less’). These challenges have increased the awareness of the importance of the plant microbiome for improved agricultural and horticultural practices. Plants are colonized by an astounding number of microorganisms that can have profound effects on seed germination, seedling vigour, plant growth and development, nutrition, diseases and productivity. In this context, plants can be viewed as superorganisms that rely in part on their microbiome for specific functions and traits. In return, plants deposit a substantial part of their photosynthetically fixed carbon into their direct surroundings (spermosphere, rhizosphere, phyllosphere) thereby feeding the microbial community and influencing their composition and activities. For the vast majority of plant-associated microorganisms, however, there is little knowledge of their specific impact on plant growth and health. Hence, deciphering the plant microbiome is critical to identify microorganisms for plant growth promotion and protection against biotic and abiotic stress. In some studies (Smith et al. 1999; Germida and Siciliano, 2001; Aira et al. 2010) it was postulated that plant genotypic traits involved in beneficial plant-microbe interactions may have been (partly) lost in the process of plant domestication, primarily as a consequence of breeding for other desirable plant traits, in particular high yields. Also high fertilizer input in soils and frequent pesticide applications have made interactions between plants and their microbiomes less relevant to sustain plant growth and health.
The overall aim of this multidisciplinary research program is to re-instate microbial support functions for crops by exploring and exploiting the biodiversity and beneficial functions of microbial communities living in/on seeds and roots of ancestors of modern crop species and of plants growing in native habitats. This approach of ‘going back to the roots’ also holds enormous potential to access the genomic and metabolic potential of yet unknown microorganisms for diverse other applications. We combine renowned academic expertise with industrial partners active in the fields of sustainable crop production and natural product discovery with the ultimate goal to deliver novel approaches and technologies to: i) improve seed germination, seedling vigour, plant growth and productivity, ii) increase plant tolerance to abiotic and biotic stress, and iii) identify seed and root exudates that promote the assembly of beneficial microbiomes and elicit the production of novel antimicrobials with applications in food, feed and pharma.