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Front Plant Sci. 2011 Dec 29;2:100. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2011.00100. eCollection 2011.

The microbe-free plant: fact or artifact?

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Departamento de Ingeniería Genética, Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados - Irapuato Irapuato, México.


Plant-microbe interactions are ubiquitous. Plants are threatened by pathogens, but they are even more commonly engaged in neutral or mutualistic interactions with microbes: belowground microbial plant associates are mycorrhizal fungi, Rhizobia, and plant-growth promoting rhizosphere bacteria, aboveground plant parts are colonized by internally living bacteria and fungi (endophytes) and by microbes in the phyllosphere (epiphytes). We emphasize here that a completely microbe-free plant is an exotic exception rather than the biologically relevant rule. The complex interplay of such microbial communities with the host-plant affects multiple vital parameters such as plant nutrition, growth rate, resistance to biotic and abiotic stressors, and plant survival and distribution. The mechanisms involved reach from direct ones such as nutrient acquisition, the production of plant hormones, or direct antibiosis, to indirect ones that are mediated by effects on host resistance genes or via interactions at higher trophic levels. Plant-associated microbes are heterotrophic and cause costs to their host plant, whereas the benefits depend on the current environment. Thus, the outcome of the interaction for the plant host is highly context dependent. We argue that considering the microbe-free plant as the "normal" or control stage significantly impairs research into important phenomena such as (1) phenotypic and epigenetic plasticity, (2) the "normal" ecological outcome of a given interaction, and (3) the evolution of plants. For the future, we suggest cultivation-independent screening methods using direct PCR from plant tissue of more than one fungal and bacterial gene to collect data on the true microbial diversity in wild plants. The patterns found could be correlated to host species and environmental conditions, in order to formulate testable hypotheses on the biological roles of plant endophytes in nature. Experimental approaches should compare different host-endophyte combinations under various relevant environmental conditions and study at the genetic, epigenetic, transcriptional, and physiological level the parameters that cause the interaction to shift along the mutualism-parasitism continuum.


clavicipitaceous endophyte; extended phenotype; mycorrhiza; non-clavicipitaceous endophyte; pathogen; plant-associated microbe; plant–microbe interaction; rhizobia

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