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It takes a community of soil microbes to protect plants from disease

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Those vegetables you had for dinner may have once been protected by an immune system akin to the one that helps you fight disease. Scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the Netherland's Wageningen University found that plants rely on a complex community of soil microbes to defend themselves against pathogens, much the way mammals harbor a raft of microbes to avoid infections.

The scientists deciphered, for the first time, the group of microbes that enables a patch of soil to suppress a plant-killing pathogen. Previous research on the phenomenon of disease-suppressive soil had identified one or two pathogen-fighting microbes at work.

But the Berkeley Lab-led team found a complex microbial network. After analyzing soil from a sugar beet field that had become resistant to a pathogen that causes root fungus, the scientists found 17 soil microbes fighting to suppress the pathogen. They also determined that all of the microbes work together to reduce the incidence of fungal infection. Their discovery that plants use a tight-knit army of soil microbes for defense could help scientists develop ways to better protect the world's food crops from devastating diseases.

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