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NSF Awards $1.75M for MSU Fungal-Plant Research

Pure culture isolates of Mortierella, a species of the Mucoromycota lineage, in soilless media.

A team of Michigan State University researchers, including synthetic biologist Bjoern Hamberger, is investigating an ancient lineage of fungi called Mucoromycota that have been found beneficial for plants. The project aims to provide novel insights into the diversity, evolution and ecological function of the interaction among the fungi, their associated endobacteria and plants.

The research initiative, which recently received a five-year, $1.75 million National Science Foundation Dimensions of Biodiversity grant, focuses on learning about the role of the endobacteria on their fungal host’s growth and metabolism and the impact on fungal-plant interactions.

Alessandro Desiro, a postdoctoral student in Hamberger's lab, preparing live cultures.

Alessandro Desiro, a postdoctoral student in Hamberger’s lab, preparing live cultures.

“This project is an exciting basis for developing several complementary lines of research,” Hamberger said. “With the functional knowledge generated in this project, we will get the tools to modulate the specialized metabolism, to engineer the species involved and, with that, ideally influence plant resilience through stable plant microbial communities.”

The interdisciplinary collaborative initiative, Phylogenetic and Functional Diversity of Tripartite Plant-Fungal-Bacterial Symbioses, is being led by Gregory Bonito, assistant professor, Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial SciencesCollege of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), and also includes co-principal investigators Hamberger, assistant professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular BiologyCollege of Natural ScienceKevin Liu, assistant professor, Department of Computer Science and EngineeringCollege of Engineering; and Patrick Edger, assistant professor, CANR Department of Horticulture.

The diverse lineage of Mucoromycota fungi are industrially important for lipid production and as biofertilizers in agricultural systems. They have co-evolved with plants through innovations the team aims to decipher and they are implicated in the successful invasion of land by plants. Many of the fungi in this group are plant growth promoters and carry within their cells bacterial endosymbionts belonging to lineages of bacteria that are known only from these fungi.

Arabidopsis thaliana co-cultured with Mortierella elongata in soilless media

Arabidopsis thaliana co-cultured with Mortierella elongata in soilless media

In this unique constellation, the researchers will compare, identify and analyze symbiosis traits that have co-evolved in the plant-fungi-bacteria partners, and will assess the impact of bacterial endosymbionts on the function of their fungal host and its interaction with plants. This study will involve analysis of specialized metabolism of all three kingdoms and correlate this with deep transcriptomics, the global analysis of expressed genes. The project also will build a culture collection and database of these fungi, which will be available to other scientists.

“Changes in host plant phenotype, metabolome, transcriptome, and resilience to abiotic stress will be studied in experiments designed to test genetic traits in the host, fungi and bacteria,” Bonito said. “The phylogenetic dimension will integrate evolution and genomics to provide a robust phylogenomic framework and new computational tools for estimating co-evolutionary and horizontal gene transfer processes between Mucoromycota and their bacterial endosymbionts.”

Hamberger’s focus is on the biochemistry and molecular biology of the plant for the project. His area of expertise will include RNA extraction, transcriptome analysis and integration with data of specialized metabolites. He also will help provide functional characterization of genes of biochemical pathways, which play an important role in plant fitness, adaptation and interaction with the environment. They also may represent the cues for communication and interactions between different species, such as plants, fungi and bacteria.

“Such multidisciplinary work has proven to be a lot of fun,” Hamberger said. When researchers bridge across different fields to achieve a shared goal, a highly dynamic and diverse environment is created. This fosters innovation.” 

  • – via the College of Natural Science website

Banner image courtesy of Bjoern Hamburger. Pure culture isolates of Mortierella, a species of the Mucoromycota lineage, in soilless media.

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