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The research being undertaken by ENSA aims to achieve a transformation in how crop plants acquire nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

ENSA's Science

The research being undertaken by the ENSA team aims to transform how crop plants acquire nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, achieving a radical shift away from the application of inorganic fertilisers to harness naturally occurring plant processes.

To achieve this, ENSA is focused on four key areas of scientific development: Nitrogen-fixation and bacterial infection, symbiosis signalling, mycorrhizal symbiosis, and nodulation.

ENSA's Science

Nitrogen Fixation and Bacterial Infection

Most plants rely on natural environmental processes, that replenish bioavailable nitrogen in the soil, for nutrition and growth. Plants, such as legumes, have evolved symbiotic interactions with nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria known as rhizobia. These interactions have the potential to fuel nitrogen metabolism in plants, by fixing gaseous nitrogen from the atmosphere, while consuming carbon supplied by the plants.

The ENSA team has focused its research in this area on transferring the beneficial association between nitrogen-fixing bacteria and legumes, to cereals and other crop plants. Engineering biological nitrogen fixation into species that currently do not have this ability, has the potential to make an important impact on the metabolism of these plant species and may sustainably enhance production for small-holder farmers.

Coordination of genetic and morphological responses by plants across time and space, is essential for intracellular bacterial infection, efficient nitrogen-fixation and metabolite exchange. ENSA is analysing the genetic mechanisms that allow intracellular bacterial infection of legume cells, to guide the engineering of this process in cereals, including the components specific to nitrogen-fixing symbiosis.

Nitrogen Fixation and Bacterial Infection

Experts in this area

Nikolaj Abel

Postdoctoral researcher

Aarhus University

Morgane Batzenschlager

Postdoctoral researcher

University of Freiburg

Ronan Broad

Postdoctoral researcher

La Trobe University

Pierre-Marc Delaux

Project leader

LRSV-CNRS (University of Toulouse, France)

Manuel Frank

Postdoctoral researcher

Aarhus University

Paul Fraser

Professor of Biochemistry

Royal Holloway University of London

Euan James

Research Leader

The James Hutton Institute

Rourou Ji

Graduate Research Assistant

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Joshua Kaste

Postdoctoral Research Associate

University of Illinois

Beatrice Lace

Postdoctoral researcher

University of Freiburg

Stephen Long

Ikenberry Chair of Crops Sciences and of Plant Biology

University of Illinois

Megan Matthews

Assistant Professor

University of Illinois

Nils Nebel

PhD student

University of Freiburg

Giles Oldroyd

Professor of Crop Sciences

University of Cambridge

Thomas Ott

Professor

University of Freiburg

Laura Perez-Fons

Research officer

Royal Holloway University of London

Phillip Poole

Project leader

University of Oxford

Jule Salfeld

PhD student

University of Freiburg

Casandra Schenk

Postdoctoral researcher

University of Freiburg

Sebastian Schornack

Principal Research Associate

University of Cambridge, Sainsbury Laboratory (SLCU)

Jawahar Singh

Postdoctoral researcher

University of Cambridge

Chao Su

Postdoctoral researcher

University of Freiburg

Magdalini Tsitsikli

Postdoctoral researcher

Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg

Tatiana Vernié

Post-doctural researcher

University of Toulouse

Jesper Wulff

Laboratory Technician

Aarhus University

Guofeng Zhang

PhD student

University of Freiburg

Ji Zhou

Head of Data Sciences Department

NIAB

Symbiosis Signalling

ENSA’s research into symbiotic signalling has focused on characterising the function of the components of the symbiosis signalling pathway in maize, barley and legumes. Key to the establishment of the symbiosis association is the specific perception of signalling molecules. Receptors activate the signalling pathway through recognition of chitooligosaccharides (COs) and lipochitooligosaccharides (LCOs). Research in ENSA identified motifs in LysM receptors that are important for distinct recognition of CO versus LCO enabling symbiosis signalling.

The ENSA team has made significant advances in its understanding of the signalling pathways in cereals through detailed genetic dissection in maize and barley. ENSA has also demonstrated how the symbiosis signalling pathway is necessary to drive diverse bacterial communities and is essential for the prevalence of bacteria known to be beneficial.

Symbiosis Signalling

Experts in this area

Mycorrhizal Symbiosis

To enable crops to utilize the full potential of the fixed nitrogen, ENSA scientists also need to address the ability of these crops to access phosphorus. The team aim to achieve this using the additional beneficial association with mycorrhizal fungi, which already exists in cereal crops.

Recent discoveries in ENSA have demonstrated that we can optimise the symbiotic association between crops and mycorrhizal fungi to maximise their utility in agriculture. This fungal association is particularly important in the acquisition of phosphate, but also facilitates the uptake of nitrates and water. Benefits generated from the mycorrhizal association can be additive with bacterial nitrogen fixation and can include protection from some pathogens.

Mycorrhizal Symbiosis

Experts in this area

Nodulation

Nodules harbour rhizobia bacterial infection and create the conditions needed for some plants to fix their own nitrogen. Previous research indicates that the inability of some species of plants to form nodules is due to the loss of a small set of genes. One of the most important gene of this set is NODULE INCEPTION; it connects symbiosis signals at the surface of the plant root to the root core, as well as coordinating nodule creation and regulating the functions needed for the establishment of nitrogen-fixation.

Plant species that have lost these genes should be amenable for repair of nitrogen-fixation. This would be a valuable stepping-stone for engineering nitrogen-fixation across all angiosperms, including legumes, cereals and other crops.

Currently the likelihood that a legume plant will form a nodule is closely linked to the amount of nitrogen in the soil. When there are high levels of nitrogen nodule formation is supressed. Importantly, ENSA research may also result in legume crops that no longer show suppression of nodulation due to the presence of nitrogen. Such legume crops could then be augmented with added nitrogen without losing biological nitrogen fixation. This would make legumes more effective at enhancing soil nitrogen fertility, by maximising biological nitrogen fixation, independent of the levels of nitrogen already present.

Nodulation

Experts in this area

Nikolaj Abel

Postdoctoral researcher

Aarhus University

Ronan Broad

Postdoctoral researcher

La Trobe University

Maialen Garmendia Calvo

Research assistant

NIAB

Harm Dings

PhD student

Wageningen University

Manuel Frank

Postdoctoral researcher

Aarhus University

Rene Geurts

Associate Professor

Wageningen University

Euan James

Research Leader

The James Hutton Institute

Min-Yao Jhu

Postdoctoral researcher

Crop Science Centre

Joel Klein

Postdoctoral researcher

Wageningen University

Anindya Kundu

Postdoctoral researcher

NIAB

Min Li

Postdoctoral researcher

Wageningen University & Research

Jie-shun Lin

Assistant professor

Aarhus University

Jieyu Liu

Postdoctoral researcher

Wageningen University

Thi Bich LUU

Postdoctoral researcher

Aarhus University

Federico Marangelli

Research assistant

NIAB

Thiago Alexandre Mores

Early career scientist

Crop Science Centre

Asma Nacer

Research assistant

Wageningen University & Research

Jordan Price

Postdoctoral researcher

NIAB

Dugald Reid

Lecturer

La Trobe University

Ivan Reyna-Llorens

NIAB

Luuk Rutten

Postdoctoral researcher

Wageningen University

Katharina Schiessl

The Sainsbury Lab

Jens Stougaard

Professor, Project leader

Aarhus University

Esther Rosales Sánchez

Research assistant

NIAB

Titis Wardhani

Postdoctoral researcher

Wageningen University

Siqi Yan

Post-doctural researcher

Wageningen University & Research

Darius Zarrabian

PhD student

Crop Science Centre

Ji Zhou

Head of Data Sciences Department

NIAB