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Staying alert: clock-control of plant-microbe mutualistic interactions

Primary Supervisor: Dr Miriam Gifford, School of Life Sciences

Secondary supervisor: Professor Isabelle Carré

PhD project title: Staying alert: clock-control of plant-microbe mutualistic interactions

University of Registration: University of Warwick

Project outline:

Growth and development of plants, animals and microbes are under the control of a 24-hour biological clock known as the circadian clock, which enables them to coordinate their activities with diurnal changes in environmental conditions. The oscillator mechanism of the clock has been investigated at length in shoots and in roots, where it is known to be entrained/informed by shoot-derived signals (e.g. James, et al. 2008 Science 322:1832-1835). When plants and microbes work together in symbiosis the timing of this movement of molecules between organisms is of key importance, because receiving them at the wrong time means that these important resources will not be utilised efficiently.

As the world’s population continues to grow we will need to increase crop yields without increasing fertiliser application. Therefore, research to understand how resource use can be maximized in plants is crucial. One example is the symbiosis between legumes (peas and beans for example) and rhizobium, a nitrogen-fixing bacterium. Rhizobium fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere and passes it on to its plant host in the form of nitrate, thus reducing the need for nitrogen fertiliser. Since most soils are nitrogen-poor and the production of nitrogen fertiliser is incredibly energy- and environmentally-expensive, this symbiosis is crucial in agriculture. Any way that we can enhance or improve the impact of nodulation would help to make legumes an even more useful crop to help us achieve sustainable ways of producing food.

Until now the impact of the clock has hardly been investigated in legumes which means there is a major deficit in our understanding of how it controls these agriculturally-important nitrogen-fixing symbiosis hosts. We recently discovered that part of the plant circadian clock called LHY affects the setting up of this symbiosis. We will test whether the effects of LHY are linked to its function in the timing mechanism of the clock, and the role of molecules that might be affected by this. In particular we will look at how LHY might control a suite of small peptides called NCRs that we know are crucial in the regulation of symbiosis (Lagunas, et al. 2019 Mol Plant 12:833-846). Together this research will enable us to design biotechnological treatments to improve nodulation in the future by working with the biological clock of the plant.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Sustainable Agriculture and Food: Plant and Crop Science. Understanding the Rules of Life: Plant Science & Systems Biology

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

The student will develop skills and expertise in 5 principal subject-specific areas:

  • The student will develop skills in microbiology, circadian biology and plant biology (supervision training).
  • Supervision will be given training in microscopy and live imaging of biological systems.
  • The student will develop extensive skills in image analysis (supervision training).
  • The student will learn the principles of bioinformatic analysis (supervision training).
  • The student will also acquire generic skills in statistics and quantitative analysis of experimental data (in house supervision and online training).

The student will also receive training in key research skills:

  • The student will be taught how to write scientific articles to communicate the results of their research to the plant science and circadian communities.
  • The student will develop oral presentation skills by giving talks and presenting posters to conferences, e.g. SEB or UKPlant Sci UK-based meetings. The student will participate in group meetings and interact with other members of the department by presenting progress in the form of internal seminars in our lively series.
  • The student will learn how to communicate to non-scientific audiences and develop skills in outreach and realising impact by participating in the development of institute web pages and contributing to open days.
  • Finally, the student will interact with scientists from various backgrounds (plant biologists, microbiologists, clock biologists and modellers), and will develop research skills for collaborative work in a strongly multidisciplinary environment - scientific skills of outstanding relevance for early career researchers.

Contact: Dr Miriam Gifford, University of Warwick