Award of excellence for a NCCR Plant Survival researcher

press release of December 3, 2010

The Faculty of Biology and Medicine of the University of Lausanne (UniL) will present the 2010 Award of Excellence for young researchers to Caroline Gutjahr on December 7th. This award, which comes with a cash prize of 2500 Swiss francs, recognises her study on rice that was carried out within the framework of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Plant Survival and appeared in the journal The Plant Cell*. The laureate, who is affiliated with the Department of Plant Molecular Biology of the UniL, identified genes implicated in the colonisation of rice roots by an arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus. It is the first time that this award is given for research outside of the biomedical field.

All plant biology specialists know very well that 80% of plants form an association with mycorrhizal fungi to improve their development. Plants are limited by the length of their roots, which restricts their access to soil nutrients, mainly phosphates, whereas arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi have long hyphae that offer a solution to this problem. However, the fungi are incapable of acquiring sugar, which they need as energy supply, through photosynthesis or from the decomposing organic matter in the soil. This is why they are dependent on their host plant. The symbiotic association results in an active nutrient exchange between plants and fungi that can be described as "sugar for phosphates" resulting in a win-win situation.

For her award winning research, Caroline Gutjahr took on one of the major crops that is the staple food for half of the global population and represents a source of revenue for millions of farmers and their families: rice. This plant is also an excellent model for understanding other cereal crops. The young post-doc from Uta Paskowski's research group identified a comprehensive list of genes that are specifically activated during the arbuscular symbiosis, which is a first finding of its kind in cereals.

"The identification of these genes led to the discovery of the existence of new molecular signalling pathways that could play an important role in root colonisation by mycorrhizal fungi", explains the laureate. The goal of the study, supported by the NCCR Plant Survival, was also to determine at which point of the fungal root colonization process were the different genes specifically activated. It showed that the activation of four genes in the plant paved the way at the beginning of the interaction and other genes were triggered in association with the penetration of fungal arbuscules into internal root cells.  

This fundamental research bodes well for prospective long term applications. A better understanding of the molecular process associated with the functioning of the arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis in rice has the potential to improve management strategies for optimising sustainable agricultural systems. 

* Arbuscular Mycorrhiza-Specific Signaling in Rice Transcends the Common Symbiosis Signaling Pathway, C. Gutjahr et al. (2008), Plant Cell; 20(11):2989-3005


Dr. Caroline Gutjahr
Université de Lausanne
Tél. : +41 21 692 42 33

Prof. Uta Paszkowski
Université de Lausanne
Tel.: + 41 21 692 42 10