Dr Sebastian Schornack of the Sainsbury Laboratory works on the interactions between plants and microbial organisms. These interactions can either be detrimental such as those with the economically relevant fungus-like oomycete Phytophthora infestans, the causal agent of the Irish Potato Famine, or beneficial to supply phosphate such as in symbiotic interactions with mycorrhizal fungi that occur in most plant species.
Both pathogenic and mutualistic symbioses follow structurally similar developmental processes to establish intracellular interfaces. It is generally accepted that both plants and microorganisms contribute to the formation of dedicated accommodation structures. However, we know little about the underlying molecular mechanisms that drive differentiation of host cells and tissues to form intracellular interfaces. The Schornack group aims to characterize the extent to which beneficial and detrimental microorganisms employ similar plant developmental processes for colonization.
Notably, not only flowering plants have associations with fungi, but also liverworts, the earliest diverging group of terrestrial plants, can engage with fungal partners. The team recently sampled liverwort species from the Botanic Garden (Lunularia cruciata and Pellia endiviifolia) and stained them to detect fungal structures. They found that Pellia endiviifolia harbours fungal structures. Comparing early land plant symbiosis with the root symbiosis of higher plants will allow them to highlight evolutionary aspects of symbiosis establishment in different parts of plants.