Getting to the roots of the matter? (Editorial)

(Dec. 16, 2014) Scientists now say that plants can have friends — and foes — and the plants can tell them apart.
Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have received a $400,000 grant from the USDA to investigate the chemical processes that allow certain plants to signal each other that they are friends, not foes, and thus work together in an ecologically mutual partnership.
Um, say what?
Dr. Louis S. Tisa, professor of microbiology and genetics, and Dr. Feixia Chu, assistant professor of biochemistry, are studying photosynthetic and nutrient utilization.
The project is a collaborative effort between the UNH and a French institute.
Previous grants laid the groundwork for the project, which focuses on the chemical signals between the bacteria Frankia and actinorhizal plants.
Frankia live in the root nodules of actinorhizal plants, which are a diverse group of woody species found in forests worldwide and include alder, bayberry, and sweet fern.
“We have been investigating how a beneficial bacterial symbiont recognizes and communicates with its host plant,” Tisa said. How does the plant recognize a friend from a foe? Our system is the Frankia-actinorhizal symbiosis, which allows these plants to colonize in harsh environments, usually by providing a nitrogen source through biological nitrogen fixation.”
Because Frankia can supply the nitrogen needs for actinorhizal plants, these plants can thrive in low-nitrogen soils and thus play an important part of the nitrogen budget of the planet.
The plants are economically significant with respect to land reclamation, reforestation, bioremediation of contaminated environmental sites, pollution reduction, soil stabilization, fuel and as a food source for animals.
However, researchers have lacked the genetic tools to understand the biological processes that support this symbiosis.
With this funding, scientists plan to use next-generation sequencing tools to address the question of how the signal is produced in Frankia.
“The use and development of this beneficial symbiosis has broad impact on an agricultural system and could be applied to other crops,” Tisa said.
You get the picture? Two seeds are in the ground. One is corn, the other a weed.
The corn seed says to the weed seed, “I don’t like you at all. You’re stealing my nitrogen. Get out of here!”
Of course, that’s laughably over-simplified, but it exemplifies the fact that modern science and technology are radically changing the face and character of production agriculture.