But what does barley need in order to partner up with the bacteria – to recognize them and respond positively? Which proteins are needed, and how many of each? Do they all have to come together in one nanodomain? Ott and his 14-person team are currently working on such questions. Starting in barley they will use individually marked proteins to assemble nanodomains with entry receptors. “We want to see the bright little dots on the barley cells under the microscope.” After that, the researchers will remove or mutate individual proteins and see what happens when they introduce Rhizobiaceae to such barley plants. Will the engineered nanodomains pass on the signals? Will barley cells break down the entry receptors if the scaffold proteins are missing? In which ways are barley and legumes alike, and how do they differ?
Along with molecular biology, modern microscopy techniques are important tools. “With these techniques we can observe and film protein complexes in living cells in real time,” Ott says. It is possible to resolve how proteins find one another, stay together, and break up - even down to a billionth of a second. With this advanced microscopy, Ott can also tell whether friendly signals reach the cell nucleus: “If perception and transmission take place correctly, the nucleus discharges waves of calcium.” A reporter protein that lights up in the presence of calcium then starts to blink rhythmically.
30 percent higher yield
“Within the framework of CIBSS, we aim to functionally reconstruct the entry nanodomain,” Ott says. He even hopes to be able to transmit partnership signals to the barley and see the plant respond accordingly. “Self-fertilizing cereal crops are my dream,” says Ott, who studied biology in Göttingen and Manchester. His path led via Potsdam-Golm and Toulouse to Munich, where he worked as a postdoc, research group leader, and later as a professor of genetics. The University of Freiburg recruited him to the southwest in 2016 with a family-friendly offer. Ott praises the top research environment in Freiburg, then returns to the long-term goal of his career. Self-fertilizing cereal crops would not need fertilizers, nor more water than other crops but could produce a 30 percent higher yield. Once established, the principle should be applicable in all plant families. “Globally, this would have an enormous effect on food security and sustainable agriculture,” Ott explains. “At the very least, I would like to have made an important contribution to this.”
Check out the original article in the University of Freiburg’s Online Magazine: