Plant Microbiome Project Connects Students to Real-Time Research

High school students are out in the field, expanding our knowledge of an invisible ecosystem

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Just like humans, plants harbor a vast number of microbes on their surfaces and interact with many more – in the case of plants, mostly in the surrounding soil. Collectively termed the plant microbiota, this community of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms has been receiving growing attention in recent years, as scientists learn more and more about the significant role these elements play: They shape ecosystems and influence plant growth and resistance to pathogens.

Yet the scientific community’s knowledge of plant microbiota in many types of terrain – for example, desert habitats – is limited. “Around 82% of the microbes that have been mapped and referenced so far in existing databases are human-oriented microbes. Only 18% are environment-oriented microbiota, and this percentage includes all those connected with plants,” says Dr. Dagan Sade, who is leading the plant microbiome research in the lab of Weizmann Institute of Science’s Vice President, Prof. Ziv Reich. “By enriching the database with environment-oriented bacteria, and especially bringing to light new species, we can potentially bring about new agricultural methods that are eco-friendly, as well as pharmaceutical developments to treat disease,” he adds. The ultimate goal of the scientists is to compile a complete genomic library of Israel’s plant microbiome for wild as well as for beneficial plants.

Amassing enough scientific information to build such a database is a multipronged endeavor, and the researchers thought of a way to make it educational as well. Reich partnered with the Davidson Institute of Science Education – the educational arm of the Weizmann Institute, to create the Plant Microbiome Project – an initiative that recruits teachers and students to take a leading role in collecting and processing bacterial and fungal species throughout Israel, helping to study these as the work progresses.

With a little help from our friends

The pilot phase, which focuses on microbial species that coexist with the unique desert flora in the Hazeva region in southern Israel, was launched in 2018 in collaboration with Dr. Michal Stolarsky-Ben-Nun of the Davidson Institute, who heads the project, Dr. Noam Shental of the Open University’s Computer Science Department, and Dr. Oded Keynan of the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center.  Also participating in the project are PhD students Maor Knafo and Shahar Rezenman in Reich’s lab, and Dr. Aurelie Lachish-Zalait, Yardena David and Vered Shapiro from the Davidson Institute.  

Around 40 teachers and more than 100 students have so far gathered samples in easy-to-use sample kits – with instructions in Hebrew, English, and Arabic – and learned to record, along with each kit, such relevant environmental parameters as temperature, light intensity and humidity.

It showed me another side of science and research

“The project is an exciting opportunity to connect scientific research with education – to enable students and teachers to take part in real-time research so they can study science in an active and interesting way that has relevance to everyday life,” says Stolarsky-Ben-Nun.

“It was a powerful, special experience,” says student Hila Lozdernik. “We received a kit with test tubes, gloves, and all the necessary equipment, as well as a booklet that explained exactly how and where to take samples. We went out into nature, learned about different plants, geographical areas and types of climate. It showed me another side of science and research.”

Enriching the microbiome database

The samples went to Reich’s lab in the Biomolecular Sciences Department. The advanced gene-sequencing techniques developed in his lab enabled the researchers there to screen multiple regions of the microbes’ genome simultaneously and obtain impressively accurate results. Reich’s team is now entering the wealth of new genetic information from the samples the students collected into a plant microbiome database.

The program’s goal is to reach 2,000 participants within the next two years, and the research team hopes to obtain samples and compare plant microbiomes from a diverse range of ecological habitats throughout Israel, including the coastal plain, and the mountainous and internal flatland regions. “We are also collaborating with the Bedouin community and schools in the Negev region.  We are especially interested in those who have maintained traditional agricultural methods. We want to compare these with more modern agriculture to see the difference in the microbial species in each kind of crop, which will help us gain new insights into the human influence on plant microbiota,” says Sade.

“I believe that the expedition we are embarking on, bringing to light the natural microbial world of plants while at the same time educating the next generation of scientific explorers, is a terrific example of community science at its best,” says Reich.

Dr. Liat Ben David, CEO of the Davidson Institute of Science Education, adds: “The creation of scientific exploration through the collective work of scientists, science educators and students is building knowledge and understanding for all.”

Prof. Ziv Reich's research is supported by the EKARD Institute for Cancer Diagnosis Research; the Benoziyo Endowment Fund for the Advancement of Science; the Jeanne and Joseph Nissim Center for Life Sciences Research; Dana and Yossie Hollander; and the Daniel Morris Trust. Prof. Reich is the incumbent of the Hella and Derrick Kleeman Professorial Chair of Biochemistry.