Investigating how plants recruit antibiotic-producing Streptomyces bacteria to protect themselves against disease

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Biological Sciences


Humans have been using antibiotics to treat disease for less than 100 years but their use in nature stretches back for tens of millions of years. Most of the antibiotics we use are made by a group of common soil bacteria called Streptomyces and plants and insects started using them long before humans. Plants including the model Arabidopsis thaliana and important food crops like wheat, potato and rice, all have Streptomyces living inside their roots. Indeed, several recent high profile papers have shown that Streptomyces bacteria are enriched in the rhizosphere (the soil coating the roots) and even more greatly enriched inside the roots of Arabidopsis compared to the surrounding soil. Research published in Science in August 2015 suggests that Streptomyces bacteria are specifically attracted by salicylic acid (SA) that is produced by the plants as part of their general stress response. The suggestion is that Streptomyces (but not all bacteria) can use SA as a food source and thus the plants can specifically select bacteria that are useful to them out of the trillions of bacteria present in the soil. The antibiotics made by these Streptomyces strains are thought to protect the plant roots against fungal infection. In this project we will use Arabidopsis as a model to test (1) if Streptomyces bacteria in the rhizosphere and roots are really using plant-produced SA as food, (2) if any and all Streptomyces strains can live inside plant roots, (3) if SA metabolism is essential for root colonisation by Streptomyces and (4) if Streptomyces-produced antifungals do indeed protect the plants against fungal infection. Ultimately this work will lay the foundation for engineering improved Streptomyces strains for use in agriculture and thus contribute to global food security.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M011216/1 01/10/2015 30/09/2023
1799823 Studentship BB/M011216/1 01/10/2016 30/09/2020 Jake Newitt
Description I have discovered a potential signal involved in plant root colonisation by Streptomyces coelicolor.
Exploitation Route This finding could potentially be used by agricultural technology companies, to engineer biocontrol agents that colonise plants better.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink

Description FEMS conference registration grant
Amount £45 (GBP)
Funding ID MMEG18ECM2 
Organisation Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country Netherlands
Start 11/2018 
End 12/2018
Description Microbiology Society Travel Grant 2017
Amount £650 (GBP)
Funding ID TG17/39 
Organisation Microbiology Society 
Sector Learned Society
Country Unknown
Start 05/2017 
End 06/2017
Description Society conference grant 2019
Amount £245 (GBP)
Funding ID GA001266 
Organisation Microbiology Society 
Sector Learned Society
Country Unknown
Start 03/2019 
End 04/2019
Description SAW trust workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact SAW trust deliver workshops to primary schools that combine science, art and writing. I have volunteered at several workshops, as well as designed and led a full science session.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017,2018,2019
Description Science festival stand 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Our lab had a pop-up stand with various different activities, demonstrating the issues surrounding antimicrobial resistance and natural product discovery.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018