A University of York biologist is part of an international team of scientists that has discovered how plants use fungi to help them to gather vital nutrients from the soil.
The team of Dr Michael Schultze, of the Department of Biology at York, working with colleagues in China, France and USA as well as the John Innes Centre at Norwich, studied the symbiosis between fungus and the roots of Medicago truncatula.
The research may point the way to the development of higher yield crops using plants' own organic tools rather than fertilizers.
The researchers found that a protein, known as a proton pump, at the interface of fungus and root cells energises cell membranes creating a pathway into the plant cell for nutrients such as phosphorus.
Most plant species are able to exploit an intimate relationship with beneficial fungi in the soil to form mycorrhizas (fungal roots). Since fine fungal filaments called hyphae can grow beyond the root system, they help the plant to acquire mineral nutrients, such as phosphorus, more efficiently.
Using rice and Medicago trunculata, the research, which is published in the journal The Plant Cell, shows that the proton pump is essential for plants using fungus in improving nutrient uptake.
Dr Schultze said: "We envisage that the mycorrhiza-specific proton pump could be an interesting target for plant breeders in an effort to increase crop yield with minimal input of fertilizers."
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