January 22, 2021, by Andrew Edwards (Ed)

Plant root breakthrough leads to Science paper – Bipin Pandey and Rahul Bhosale tell us how it happened!

Dr. Bipin Kumar Pandey (above) is a Research Fellow in the School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham. He received a 12-month PhD+ award from the Future Food Beacon in April 2018.

Dr. Rahul Bhosale is a Nottingham Research Fellow in Phenomics and Functional Genomics at the Future Food Beacon, University of Nottingham. He recently obtained a prestigious BBSRC Discovery Fellowship.

Rahul Bhosale

Dr. Rahul Bhosale

On 15 January 2021, a research paper was published in the leading journal Science entitled ‘Plant roots sense soil compaction through restricted ethylene diffusion’. Bipin Pandey is the lead author and the Beacon’s Rahul Bhosale is a co-author. They were part of a wider international team, which included senior researchers and masters students at the University of Nottingham; Malcolm Bennett, Sacha Mooney, Craig Sturrock and Lottie Jose.

The paper has received worldwide press attention in print, on radio and on TV, including a summary in the leading journal Nature. An accompanying article in The Conversation on the day of the paper’s release and a UoN press release played key roles in broadening the paper’s coverage.

Gentlemen, how did this project start and when did you become involved?

Rahul: This project was started as a collaboration between the teams of Prof. Malcolm Bennett and Prof. Dabing Zhang. I was involved in this project early on, when we had just started discussions and were planning to screen plant model Arabidopsis thaliana mutants to understand the genes and signals involved in this process.

Bipin: This project was started initially to examine the effect of other hormones (like auxin) and genes involved in root penetration but later I discovered that ethylene is vital to shape the root adaptive responses in compacted soil. I was involved since beginning of the project with our Chinese collaborators, Dr. Huang and Prof. Dabing, who played a critical role providing novel rice hormone mutant resources and so helped us extend the findings of our studies to include monocot as well as dicot plants.

What was your precise role in the research?

Rahul: During the initial months of this project, I ran tests to mimic soil compaction conditions in the lab, using different concentrations of a substance called agar. I screened various hormone-signalling mutants of Arabidopsis and identified that specifically ethylene-signalling mutants showed reduced sensitivity to compacted agar. However, it soon became evident that studying the compaction process in agar did not fully replicate the effects observed in soil, prompting a switch in our team to work entirely in soil.

I helped design miniaturised, easy to open, 3D printed soil columns, with the help of the Beacon’s Makers Space technologist, Jonathan Atkinson, to study the root growth of these Arabidopsis mutants in soil. In parallel, Bipin made important advances in developing ways to grow, recover and image rice roots grown in compacted soil.

Bipin: As lead author of this project, I was actively involved in designing, executing and analysing most of the experiments. Switching from studying roots grown in agar to soil was particularly challenging, requiring a lot of patience and ingenuity. Imaging the cellular responses of the ethylene biosensor lines in compacted soil grown plants in both Rice and Arabidopsis, in different types of soil at different moisture levels and at different strengths of soil, was my greatest challenge to date!

Image of roots growing in compacted soil 2

What is it about this project that has made it so successful?

Bipin: Sheer hard work, active collaborations and exemplary support from Prof. Malcolm Bennett, Prof. Sacha Mooney and Dr. Craig Sturrock made this possible amid this Covid-19 pandemic. I feel honoured to have the active involvement and support of such hardworking minds as Dr. Guoqiang Huang, Dr. Rahul Bhosale, Prof. Olivier Martin, Dr. Sjon Hartman and Prof. Richard Whalley, who did not leave any stone unturned to contribute to this beautiful collaboration!

Rahul: I think the hard work from the shared first authors (Bipin and Guoqiang), the ingenuity of the corresponding authors (Malcolm and Dabing) in designing experiments, plus massive efforts from all the co-authors (particularly during lockdown!) made this project very successful.

How did you celebrate?

Bipin: I enjoyed a celebration with our collaborators on MS Teams and raised a glass virtually.

Rahul: In these unprecedented times, the celebration was via a MS Teams call. Unfortunately, I could not attend it due to baby duties but I raised a glass from my kitchen in very high spirits.

What are your hopes for this research? What benefits does it offer the world?

Bipin: Compaction leads to reductions in yields of 25% and, when combined with other stresses like drought, crop losses can be up to 75%. Our breakthrough discovery will hopefully inspire researchers across the globe to adopt this novel way of futureproofing crops to climate change  and soil compaction stresses.

Rahul: I hope that, through the fundamental understanding of soil compaction responses in roots generated in this research, we will be able to engineer improved varieties that are more tolerant to, and have improved yield, in compacted soils.Image of roots growing in compacted soil 1

After the excitement of this high-impact paper, what will you work on next?

Bipin: I am exploiting this new knowledge in several other important crops such as wheat, rice, tomato and maize to generate compaction resistant crops. I am doing this by building a wider network of key collaborators across different areas of interdisciplinary research, including: soil science; state of the art imaging technologies like Laser Ablation Tomography (LAT) and Computerised Tomography (CT), mathematical modelling, Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS), cell biology and CRISPR genome editing tools.

Rahul: I am excited to continue working on root responses to compaction with Prof. Bennett, especially in UK crops such as wheat. Towards this, we recently studied the genetic diversity of 1000 wheat lines (using new genomic resources made available to us by our collaborators at JIC and from China) and prioritised lines that could be insensitive to ethylene. With the help of Bipin and other team members in Bennett lab, we plan to validate this prediction and study their responses to compacted soils. Such efforts would pave new ways for breeding more compaction tolerant wheat varieties in the UK and worldwide. We are also working closely with groups in the US to extend our findings into other important crops like maize.

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