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This conference brought together nearly 140 scientists working on various aspects of the plant microbiome, and provided a unique forum to unite plant and microbial ecologists with molecular biologists. The conference opened with a fascinating keynote plenary by Jo Handelsman (Yale University) outlining the parallels between work on the human microbiome and work on the plant microbiome. Micro-organisms in the human gut have recently been gaining recognition for their important beneficial roles in human health and disease control. Micro-organisms in plants (the endosphere) and near plants (the rhizosphere/ phyllosphere) are only recently gaining similar recognition for their beneficial roles in plant health. A classic example, although not yet fully understood, is that of suppressive soils and the role of microbes in reducing pathogen infection, for example the role of Pseudomonads in take-all and Rhizoctonia suppressive soils. Can we alter the ‘diet’ of plants and shift their ‘gut’ composition towards beneficial microbes?
Plant pathologists have a long history of bringing together different scales of biology and are noted for having a balanced focus on molecular biology while never losing sight of more complex systems. This need for a careful balance between a systems biology and reductionist approach is becoming increasingly important in the study of plantmicrobial interactions and was one of the key themes of the conference. The costs for metagenomic studies are rapidly decreasing and the volume of data we are working with are rapidly increasing. This is allowing great progress to be made in characterising the structure of bacterial communities. However, at present there is a bottleneck in computing power and it is important not to neglect studies on specific cultured bacterial isolates where studies can be performed at a more detailed resolution. To this end it was agreed that research groups should try to maintain accurate and well documented isolate libraries to compliment the many excellent metagenomic studies.
Another fascinating session expanded on the concept of microbial suppression of pathogens, particularly in relation to suppressive soils. For many biological control micro-organisms, induced systemic resistance (ISR) is recognised as a mechanism which at least partly explains disease suppression. Peter Bakker (Utrecht University) presented results on the isolation and characterisation of the genes involved in triggering ISR. Bacteria have often been shown to have direct growth promoting effects, but these rarely cause significant changes by the end of the season. ISR has the potential for longer term benefits and hence may have important applications for the future of sustainable agriculture.
I would like to thank the BSPP for contributing to my travel expenses and for enabling me to present a poster at this conference. The conference was a valuable experience for me to engage with the plant-microbiome community and to discuss my PhD project with experts in the field.