Crop production worldwide is sustained through nitrogen fertilizer produced via the energy-demanding Haber-Bosch process. One group of closely related plants evolved to become independent of nitrogen from the soil by engaging in symbiosis with bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen to plant-usable ammonium and are hosted within specialized organs, the root nodules. Nodulation evolved several times independently but exclusively in four related orders, the Fabales, Fagales, Cucurbitales and Rosales (FaFaCuRo) based on a putative genetic predisposition to evolve root nodules acquired by a common ancestor of this clade.
This project aims to identify the elusive genetic switches involved in the evolution of nodulation. It builds on the underlying idea that a succession of events co-opted preexisting developmental programs to be activated by symbiotic stimuli. We will systematically investigate and compare the prewired connections between signaling pathways and developmental modules present in non-nodulating and nodulating relatives, to identify components acquired by nodulators. The Rosaceae represent a particularly attractive family to test evolutionary hypotheses by transferring candidate switches from a nodulator into the genome of closely related sister genera to enable nitrogen fixing root nodule symbiosis. Most genera of the Rosaceae including economically valuable targets such as apple and strawberry are non-nodulating. A minority of Rosaceae form ancestral, lateral root related actinorhiza nodules with Frankia actinobacteria, which differs from the derived, more complex symbiosis of legumes with rhizobia. Frankia strains have a very broad host range and can fix nitrogen at ambient oxygen concentrations thus imposing minimal constraints on a host environment suitable for efficient symbiosis. Thus, by retracing small evolutionary steps within the Rosaceae we will take a huge leap towards nitrogen-fertilizer independent crops for sustainable agriculture.
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