Symbiosis Receptor-like Kinase (SYMRK) is indispensable for the development of phosphate-acquiring arbuscular mycorrhiza (AM) as well as nitrogen-fixing root nodule symbiosis, but the mechanisms that discriminate between the two distinct symbiotic developmental fates have been enigmatic. In this study, we show that upon ectopic expression, the receptor-like kinase genes Nod Factor Receptor 1 (NFR1), NFR5, and SYMRK initiate spontaneous nodule organogenesis and nodulation-related gene expression in the absence of rhizobia. Furthermore, overexpressed NFR1 or NFR5 associated with endogenous SYMRK in roots of the legume Lotus japonicus. Epistasis tests revealed that the dominant active SYMRK allele initiates signalling independently of either the NFR1 or NFR5 gene and upstream of a set of genes required for the generation or decoding of calcium-spiking in both symbioses. Only SYMRK but not NFR overexpression triggered the expression of AM-related genes, indicating that the receptors play a key role in the decision between AM- or root nodule symbiosis-development.
Like all plants, crop plants need nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphate to grow. Often these essential elements are in short supply, and so millions of tons of fertiliser are applied to agricultural land each year to maintain crop yields. Another way for plants to gain access to scarce nutrients is to form symbiotic relationships with microorganisms that live in the soil. Plants pass on carbon-containing compounds—such as sugars—to the microbes and, in return, certain fungi provide minerals—such as phosphates—to the plants. Some plants called legumes (such as peas, beans, and clovers) can also form relationships with bacteria that convert nitrogen from the air into ammonia, which the plants then use to make molecules such as DNA and proteins.
To establish these symbiotic relationships with plants, nitrogen-fixing bacteria release chemical signals that are recognized via receptor proteins, called NFR1 and NFR5, found on the surface of the plant root cells. These signals trigger a cascade of events that ultimately lead to the plant forming an organ called ‘root nodule’ to house and nourish the nitrogen-fixing bacteria. A similar signalling mechanism is thought to take place during the establishment of symbiotic relationships between plants and certain soil fungi.
A plant protein called Symbiosis Receptor-like Kinase (or SYMRK for short) that is also located on the root cell surface is required for both bacteria–plant and fungi–plant associations to occur. However, the exact role of this protein in these processes was unclear. Ried et al. have now investigated this by taking advantage of a property of cell surface receptor proteins: if some of these proteins are made in excessive amounts they activate their signalling cascades even when the initial signal is not present.
Ried et al. engineered plants called Lotus japonicus to produce high levels of SYMRK, NFR1, or NFR5. Each of these changes was sufficient to trigger the plants to develop root nodules in the absence of microbes. Genes associated with the activation of the signalling cascade involved the formation of root nodules were also switched on when each of the three proteins was produced in large amounts. In contrast, only an excess of SYMRK could activate genes related to fungi–plant associations. Ried et al. also found that, while SYMRK can function in the absence of the NFRs, NFR1 and NFR5 need each other to function. These data suggest that the receptor proteins play a key role in the decision between the establishment of an association with a bacterium or a fungus.
As an excess of symbiotic receptors caused plants to form symbiotic structures, Ried et al. propose that this strategy could be used to persuade plants that usually do not form symbioses with nitrogen-fixing bacteria to do so. If this is possible, it might lead us to engineer crop plants to form symbiotic interactions with nitrogen-fixing bacteria; this would help increase crop yields and enable crops to be grown in nitrogen-poor environments without the addition of extra fertiliser.