A healthy microbiome (community of microbes) promotes a healthy immune system in both plants and animals, including humans.
Roger Innes, a Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology at Indiana University Bloomington, will lead a team of researchers from his own lab and six other institutions to learn more about how microbiomes are maintained. The seven laboratories represent diverse and complementary expertise. They will focus on understanding the role of extracellular RNA (exRNA) in communication between cells and in shaping the microbiomes—especially those of bacteria—that live on and inside plants, insects, and humans.
Their project will test the hypothesis that RNA secreted by host cells plays a central role in maintaining health both through communication among cells and by modifying the microbiome. The National Science Foundation has granted the researchers $6 million for the four-year project.
"Understanding how exRNAs shape communication between cells and organisms will enable us to manipulate exRNA communication in both agriculture and medicine," Innes explained. "It will lead to development of environmentally friendly pesticides as well as treatments that promote formation of healthy microbiomes in both plants and animals. This knowledge will also enable development of diagnostic and therapeutic tools for early detection and/or treatment of disease."
Innes explores the genetic and biochemical basis of disease resistance in plants. He studies how plants can recognize pathogens and actively respond. For this project, his lab will specifically examine the microbiome of maize (corn) leaves and how RNA secreted by corn leaves affects the microbial community on those leaves.
"The project builds on our previous and current work in which we have been characterizing the RNA that is secreted by plant cells and its potential role in protecting plants from pathogenic microbes," said Innes. "In essence, we are expanding our current research from looking just at plant-pathogen interactions to looking at plant-beneficial microbe interactions."
Simultaneously, the lab of collaborator Erica Westerman, University of Arkansas, will study RNA secreted by fall armyworms (Spodoptera frugiperda)—caterpillars that eat corn leaves and are major agricultural pests. Kendall Corbin's lab at the University of Kentucky Research Foundation will look at the effect of RNAs secreted by human intestinal epithelial cells on human gut microbial communities. Glen Borchert’s laboratory at the University of South Alabama will investigate how extracellular RNAs contribute to communication between human cells. Patricia Baldrich from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center will assess whether and how extracellular RNAs differ from intracellular RNAs in terms of chemical modifications as well as whether such modifications impact their function. Lastly, Miriam Konkel at Clemson University and Corbin Jones, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will lead the RNA sequencing and computational analysis components of this project.