Agromicrobiome: microorganisms from the roots of crop plants

All we that studied “Bios” probably remember two known aspects of the symbiotic relationships of plant roots with microorganisms:

1) The bacterial Rhizobium nodules on the roots of legumes (Figure 1). These bacteria, with the nitrogenase complex, are among the few organisms capable of fixing atmospheric N2 transforming it into organic nitrogen, which is used by the plant, and symbiotically, the plant provides organic compounds to the bacteria. Thanks to these bacteria, plants such as legumes do not require nitrogen fertilizers.

Fig1 noduls Rhizobium

Figure 1. Rhizobium nodules

2) The mycorrhizae, that is, the symbiotic relationships between fungi and plant roots. The most commonly known are the mushrooms always associated with some trees (Figure 2), such as the Lactarius sanguifluus associated with pines. In fact, mycorrhizae are present in most plants. Through this symbiosis, the fungi receive organic nutrients of the plant, and this can capture more easily water and mineral nutrients (especially P, Zn and Cu) by means of the fungus. In addition, mycorrhizae increase the resistance of plants to diseases coming from the soil and facilitate them inhabiting badlands.

Fig2 shannon-wright-network

Figure 2. Mycorrhizae of mushrooms with trees. Image from Shannon Wright

But these are only the best known of the symbiotic relationships between microorganisms and plant roots. Indeed, as the soil is full of microorganisms, many of these, including bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa or viruses, are beneficial, symbiotic or otherwise, for the plants. And what is biotechnologically more interesting, more potential applications of these microorganisms to benefit crop plants are being found, which can be a good alternative to the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Different microorganisms can have direct positive effects on plant nutrition as nitrogen fixation, mineralization of organic compounds, and solubilisation of elements not available to the plant (such as phosphates, K, Fe), but also indirectly positive effects, such as the production of hormones and growth factors, or protection against pathogens (García 2013).

Thus, there is a growing interest in the biological control of plant pathogens. It has been proven that some of these pathogens are inhibited by antibiotics produced by microorganisms in the rhizosphere (Raaijmakers et al 2002). Bacteria are being used (bacterization) for some years in  soil or with seeds or other plant parts, with the aim of improving the growth and health of the plant.

Some of the best known and used bacteria in this sense have been Bacillus and Paenibacillus. Several species of these genera of aerobic spore bacteria are abundant in agricultural soils and can promote plant health in different ways, suppressing pathogens with antibiotic metabolites, stimulating plant defence, facilitating nutrient uptake by the plant, or promoting symbiosis with Rhizobium or with mycorrhizae (McSpadder 2004).

The genus Paenibacillus was reclassified from Bacillus in 1993, and includes P. polymyxa, a species N2 – fixing, which is used in agriculture and horticulture. This and other Paenibacillus species give complex and regular colonial forms in agar, even surprising (Figure 3), which vary according to environmental conditions. For this, a self-organizing and cooperative behaviour between individual bacterial cells is needed, using a system of chemical communication. This bacterial social behaviour would be an evolutive precursor of multicellular organisms.

Fig3 colonies paenibacillus

Figure 3. Colonies of Paenibacillus dendritiformis, 6 cm diameter each, branched (left) and chiral (right) morphotypes. From Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The colonization of plant roots by these bacteria has been demonstrated, and also that they do it by forming biofilms (Figure 4). The inoculation of these bacteria to the roots promotes the growth, as shown in peppers (Figure 5). This appears to be due to the nitrogen fixing bacteria, which increases the formation of plant proteins and chlorophyll, thus increasing photosynthesis and physiological activities. And on the other hand, it has been shown that these bacteria produce siderophores, which facilitate Fe uptake by the plant (Lamsal et al 2012).

Fig4 root tip Paeni

Figure 4. Colonization of Paenibacillus polymyxa and biofilm formation on roots of Arabidopsis thaliana. Adapted from Timmusk et al 2005.


Figure 5. Promoting growth effect of peppers (Capsicum annuum) by inoculation with Bacillus subtilis (AB17) and Paenibacillus polymyxa (AB15), respect the non-inoculated control. From Lamsal et al. 2012.

Moreover, bacteria such as Paenibacillus can be effective against plant pathogens. For example, it has been shown that a strain of P. lentimorbus (B-30488r) reduces the incidence of disease done by the fungus Alternaria solani in tomato. It has been tested (Figure 6) that after inoculating with Paenibacillus a plant infected with Alternaria, resistance to the fungus was induced in the plant. The bacteria degraded the cell walls of the fungus and also inhibited it by competition of nutrients. In addition, it was found that Paenibacillus has no negative effect on the microbial population in the rhizosphere of tomato (Khan et al 2012). These treatments are a good alternative to the use of fungicides, avoiding the environmental and health problems of these compounds.

Microsoft Word - Fig. 6

Figure 6. Schema of the influence of Paenibacillus lentimorbus B-30488r in the interactions of  tomato plant with Alternaria solani, a fungus pathogen (Khan et al 2012).

Finally, these Paenibacillus can also be useful to avoid the transmission of human pathogens such as Salmonella through the crop plants. Indeed, on the east coast of the USA a few years ago were detected outbreaks of Salmonella on tomatoes due to contamination of water. When they analyzed the microbiome present in the roots of tomatoes and these were compared with those of other places where there were no Salmonella contamination occurred, it was found that these tomatoes of the East Coast had no Paenibacillus, which were present in tomatoes of other places. With this, they decided to inoculate tomatoes with several Paenibacillus and found that Salmonella disappeared. Among the inoculated strains, one was selected as more effective, P. alvei TS -15 , for which a patent was obtained as a biocontrol agent of foodborne human pathogens (Brown et al. 2012) .

Thus, knowledge of the soil microbiota and the many forms of relationships between microorganisms and plants lead to find new strategies for using “good” microbes to prevent food safety problems of transmission of pathogens, while at the same time it can be a good ecological alternative to the massive use of pesticides.


Brown EW, Zheng J, Enurach A, The Government of USA (2012) Paenibacillus alvei strain TS-15 and its use in controlling pathogenic organisms. Patent WO2012166392, PCT/US2012/038584

Conniff R (2013) Super dirt. Scientific American 309, sept, 76-79.

Conniff R (2013) Tierra prodigiosa. Investigación y Ciencia 446, nov, 68-71.

García, Sady (2013) Los microorganismos del suelo y su rol en la nutrición vegetal. Simposium Perú “Manejo nutricional de cultivos de exportación”.

Khan N, Mishra A, Nautiyal CS (2012) Paenibacillus lentimorbus B-30488r controls early blight disease in tomato by inducing host resistance associated gene expression and inhibiting Alternaria solani. Biological Control 62, 65-74

Lamsal K, Kim SW, Kim YS, Lee YS (2012) Application of rhizobacteria for plant growth promotion effect and biocontrol of anthracnose caused by Colletotrichum acutatum on pepper. Mycobiology 40, 244-251.

McSpadden Gardener BB (2004) Ecology of Bacillus and  Paenibacillus spp. in agricultural systems. Phytopathology 94, 1252-1258

Raaijmakers JM, Vlami M, De Souza JT (2002) Antibiotic production by bacterial biocontrol agents. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek 81, 537-547

Sánchez, Manuel.

Timmusk S, Grantcharova N, Wagner EGH (2005) Paenibacillus polymyxa invades plant roots and forms biofilms. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 71, 7292-7300




About Albert Bordons

Professor at "Universitat Rovira i Virgili" in Tarragona. Born in Barcelona 1951. Scientific areas: microbiology, biochemistry, biotechnology, oenology. I like: nature, biological sciences, photography, mountains, ... Languages: catalan (first one), spanish, french, english and some italian.

Posted on 24/11/2013, in Bacteria, Biotechnology, Evolution, Symbiosis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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