Under Drought Conditions, Monoderm Bacteria Help Sorghum Continue Growing

Researchers discover how certain bacteria may safeguard plant growth during a drought, making way for strategies to improve crop productivity.

The Science

The devastating effects of drought are expected to increase in severity and frequency in the coming years. To protect the world’s food supply, farmers attempt to breed more hardy plants as scientists turn to genetic engineering. Now a team of researchers has discovered how changes in the microbiome—the ecosystem of microbes attached to the roots of plants and in the soil surrounding it—may act naturally to improve drought tolerance in plants.

The Impact

Drought stress is a major obstacle in agriculture. Bacteria associated with the roots of some plants can mitigate the effects on plant growth. Understanding the causes and timing of changes in the microbiome could lead to strategies that make the most of this natural drought-protection and improve plant productivity world-wide.


The microbial community associated with sorghum was studied by researchers from the University of California–Berkeley, University of California–Davis, Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. This important U.S. bioenergy and feed crop is also a food staple in the developing world. The team took weekly samples of sorghum plants over a four-month period during a time when the fields were experiencing drought conditions and compared how the sorghum microbiome and plant root metabolome changed during that time. The team discovered that drought primarily increases the abundance and activity of monoderm Actinobacteria in both the soil surrounding the roots and plant tissue. Metatranscriptomics studies of gene activities (a profile of community-wide gene expression) revealed, during drought conditions, these monoderm bacteria increased transcription of genes related to metabolite transport. Using a gas chromatography mass spectrometer at EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, an Office of Science user facility, the team further characterized the sorghum root metabolites and correlated them with significant changes in the soil bacteria. The results led scientists to believe sorghum under drought stress exudes metabolites that select for monoderm Actinobacteria in the surrounding root area and these bacteria may enable sorghum to cope better with drought stress. This discovery may hold insights into how plants such as sorghum manage or influence soil microbiomes, which in turn may promote drought hardiness in plants. The work is part of the Epigenetic Control of Drought Response in Sorghum (EPICON) project, which seeks to develop an in-depth understanding of the drought tolerance of sorghum in the field and leads the way for enhancing bioenergy crop production on marginal land.

Principal Investigator

Devin Coleman-Derr
University of California–Berkeley
[email protected]

Related Links


This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science Office of Biological and Environmental Research Grant DE-SC0014081 and by the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a DOE Office of Science user facility. Additional support was provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Joint BioEnergy Institute, a bioenergy research center sponsored by the DOE.


Xu, L., D. Naylor, Z. Dong, T. Simmons, G. Pierroz, K.K. Hixson, Y.-M. Kim, E.M. Zink, K.M. Engbrecht, Y. Wang, C. Gao, S. DeGraaf, M.A. Madera, J.A. Sievert, J. Hollingsworth, D. Birdseye, H.V. Scheller, R. Hutmacher, J. Dahlberg, C. Jansson, J.W. Taylor, P.G. Lemaux, and D. Coleman-Derr. 2018. “Drought Delays Development of the Sorghum Root Microbiome and Enriches for Monoderm Bacteria,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 115, E4284-E4293. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1717308115.