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Top Story

A hidden world of communication, chemical warfare beneath the soil

The soil supporting a field of crops teems with life. Untold numbers of bacteria and fungi strive for space and food. Most are harmless. Many are vital to creating healthy soil. But farmers worry about a handful of species that cause devastating crop diseases, and they often turn to chemical pesticides to keep those pathogens in check. New research shows how some of these harmful microbes have to contend not just with a farmer's chemical attacks, but also with their microscopic neighbors. In turn, the microscopic neighbors themselves turn to chemical warfare to ward off threats. Researchers have been exploring the hidden world of soil pathogens for years, listening in on the chemical signals they send back and forth to one another. The team's latest research decodes one of those signals. When the bacterial wilt species Ralstonia solanacearum tries to infect the fungal pathogen Fusarium fujikuroi, the fungus retaliates with a host of antibacterial compounds to keep its invader at bay. This research is a small part of efforts to shine a light on the mysterious microbial communities beneath our feet. Like they're doing with the animal microbiome, researchers are trying to uncover which microbes reside in the soil, what messages they're sending out, and what those signals mean. A greater understanding of these rich communities will likely help scientists respond to persistent threats crops face from these microbes.

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