Aarhus Universitets segl


Sektionen for Plantemolekylærbiologi

Plant Molecular Biology

The section's activities focus on genetic, molecular and biochemical research in the model plant Lotus japonicus, as well as several crop plants.

The research seeks to elucidate and understand the mechanisms behind genetic control of signal transduction, cell differentiation, developmental processes, local adaptation, and plant-microbe interactions. Key research areas include symbiotic nitrogen fixation, plant perception of microbial signalling molecules, susceptibility to pathogens, and colonisation by symbiotic and endophytic bacteria/fungi.

The section has state-of-the-art facilities for plant cultivation in Aarhus and Påskehøjgaard, including tissue culture rooms, climate chambers and greenhouses. In addition to general competencies in genetics, genomics, molecular biology, biochemistry and structural biology,  the group has specialized knowledge in various types of microscopy, applied bioinformatics and genome sequencing.

The section has also built up a population of retrotransposon mutants in Lotus japonicus. The population of more than 130,000 plant lines is available as a resource (Lotus Base) for determining the function of genes using reverse genetics.

The section consists of groups investigating:

Research activities within the section are currently funded by grants from the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the European Research Council, Innovation Fund Denmark, the European Union, and the Independent Research Fund Denmark. In addition, the group participates in a project that is currently supported through a grant to the University of Cambridge by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID).

Current projects in the Plant Molecular Biology section

InRoot: Molecular Mechanisms and Dynamics of Plant-Microbe Interactions at the Root-Soil Interface

Recent research on plants and their naturally associated microorganisms has laid the groundwork to look into new perspectives and concepts for understanding plant function, performance and growth under limited input conditions. These new perspectives will help to reduce the environmental footprint and have the potential to define breeding targets and develop applications through microbial interventions. InRoot links plant and bacterial genetics, protein chemistry, analytical chemistry and plant physiology with bacterial and plant population biodiversity studies and advanced modeling.

The overarching aim of InRoot is to establish knowledge and tools for the evidence-based development of new resilient crops and associated microbial interventions that will improve productivity, reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, and alleviate negative environmental impacts accompanying food production. In order to do this InRoot looks at both the plant and bacterial contributions to crop resiliency. InRoot is organized around six research area that combine the expertise available at the PM section to investigate the natural diversity, host controlled rhizosphere and endosphere interactions, root responses, plant physiology and advanced modeling in a tightly interconnected and iterative workflow.

The InRoot provides funding to all PIs at PM section for the period 2019-2025, and is supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation as part of Novo Nordisk’s wider ‘Collaborative Crop Resilience Program’ (CCRP).

For more information about this project, see inroot.au.dk or contact Jens Stougaard (stougaard@mbg.au.dk).

RINFEC: The Roots of Infection

RINFEC aims to identify and characterize the plant and bacterial genes responsible for interactions between plant roots and soil bacteria. The hypothesis behind the project is that the intercellular infection mechanism used by symbiotic rhizobia is an evolutionary development of a mechanism(s) that already exists to regulate plant root interaction with endophytic bacteria living within plant roots. By characterizing this unexplored intercellular mode of infection in Lotus japonicus, we hope to uncover both the plant and bacterial genetics involved as well as the biochemical processor that controls these mechanisms.

RINFEC will exploit Lotus’ capacity to support either intercellular entry (conserved mode) or legume specific infection thread entry, dependent on the rhizobia encountered. This allows comparative investigations of these two infection modes in simple binary interactions with the same host. Given the exceptional ability of different rhizobia for intercellular endophytic colonization of non-legume roots this provides an unprecedented platform to identify mechanisms by which plants selectively enable a subset of bacteria to infect roots. RINFEC will pioneer novel plant and bacterial genetic methods, cell-layer transcriptomics, phospho-proteomics and advanced biochemistry to break new ground in understanding infection and soil microbe influences on plant performance under environmental stress conditions.

The RINFEC project is funded by an ERC Advanced Grant from the European Research Council and runs for 5 years, 2019-2024.

For more information about this project, please contact Jens Stougaard (stougaard@mbg.au.dk).

Enhancing nitrogen fixation of Rhizobium-legume symbiosis for sustainable agricultural production

Food security is one of the most complex challenges facing humanity. So far, the boost in crop production has been achieved mostly by the increased use of inorganic fertilizers, in particular nitrogen. Nowadays sustainable production is a central theme for agriculture and legumes are extremely instrumental for this. Legume plants form symbiotic interactions with soil nitrogen-fixing microbes called rhizobia, able to directly absorb atmospheric nitrogen. Legumes accommodate rhizobia in special organs, the root nodules, provide bacteria with carbon and receive fixed nitrogen in return. Although, root nodule symbiosis is one of the most productive nitrogen-fixing systems its efficiency can be highly variable. Driven by the question "What restricts its efficiency?" we aim to discover and characterise molecular mechanisms negatively regulating symbiotic nitrogen fixation. Hypothetically these mechanisms could be evolutionarily co-opted from plant immunity with new and specific roles in limiting nitrogen fixation. It means that genetic regulators of symbiosis efficiency can be identified by comparative phylogenetics and subsequently be removed using gene-editing technologies to enhance symbiotic performance in legume crops.

This project provides funding to Aleksandr Gavrin and is funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation, 2022-2027.

For more information about this project, please contact Aleksandr Gavrin (agav@mbg.au.dk).

ENSA: Enabling Nutrient Symbioses in Agriculture

The ENSA project involves ten international partners. Originally titled "Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa", the project aimed to use naturally occurring biological nitrogen fixation to provide nitrogen to crop plants in small-holder farms in sub-Saharan Africa. The first phase of ENSA focused on the early recognition steps that allow rhizobial perception. In the second phase, the project focused its efforts on engineering nodule organogenesis in cereals and establishing a framework of understanding to tackle the challenge of engineering bacterial infection. In 2022, ENSA successfully replicated the nutrient-acquiring process that naturally occurs in some plants, a crucial step in the eventual goal of reducing or eliminating the need for expensive inorganic fertilisers. Now in its third phase, ENSA has expanded and adopted the new title "Enabling Nutrient Symbioses in Agriculture" and will expand its focus on the acquisition of nutrients beyond nitrogen through symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi. Africa still remains the highest priority for ENSA, but the project aims to benefit agriculture more widely.

Within the ENSA project, members of Plant Molecular Biology section mainly work on: auxin, cytokinin and cell cycle regulation and organogenesis; LCO perception, signal transduction and rhizobial interactions; and genetics of infection and organogenesis. 

The ENSA project provides funding to Simona Radutoiu, Kasper R. Andersen, Stig Uggerhøj Andersen, and Jens Stouggard and is currently supported through a grant to the University of Cambridge by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK government's Department for International Development (DFID).

For further details see ensa.ac.uk or contact Jens Stougaard (stougaard@mbg.au.dk)

Cryo-EM investigation of LysM receptors and calcium decoders governing plant-microbe interactions

Plants and microbes interact and form symbioses that benefit both organisms. Examples of this are nitrogen fixation by legume-bacteria symbiosis, phosphate supply by plant–fungi symbiosis and plant disease resilience facilitated by commensal bacteria. To ensure specific communication between microbes and plants, both a perception system and a decoding system have evolved to ensure that beneficial microbes can interact and colonize the plant while harmful microbes are denied access. This project seeks to understand in molecular detail how plants interpret microbes using receptors and calcium signal decoders. We will use a combination of protein biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology to understand the molecular mechanism of plant–microbe communications at atomic resolution. This knowledge will help guide our efforts to engineer plants to be less dependent on chemical fertilisers and pesticides but obtain these benefits from microbial associations instead.

This project is funded by the Carlsberg Foundation, 2021-2024.

For more information, contact Kasper Røjkjær Andersen (kra@mbg.au.dk).

IMFABA: Local and sustainable protein production with improved faba beans

Faba beans are widely adapted to different climates, but yield especially well under moist temperate conditions. In Denmark, they can play a major role in substituting for soy imports and there is strong interest from both farmers and grain merchants. IMFABA will realise the great potential of faba beans by improving yield stability and protein properties, taking advantage of the expertise and resources developed during the NORFAB project. Drought and heat stress greatly affect yield stability. Leaf stomatal density and canopy temperature will be screened in the NORFAB germplasm to identify genotypes with contrasting drought responses. Their stomatal conductance will be measured and the active root zone will be monitored using moisture sensors to identify mechanisms underlying drought tolerance. Protein content, amino acid composition and protein digestibility are major targets for improvement in order to match soybean-based feed. Seed protein content, storage protein diversity and feed value will be screened to develop markers and enable breeding crosses that lead to increased protein and methionine content, without compromising yield or seed size. In NORFAB, breeding efforts were initiated and inbred breeding lines were generated. IMFABA takes an important next step by selecting breeding lines for new synthetic varieties based on drought resistance and protein properties, while also providing a basis for continued improvement of these traits in future breeding programs.

This project provides funding to Stig Uggerhøj Andersen from the Green Development and Demonstration Programme (GUDP) 2021–2025.

For more information, please email Stig Uggerhøj Andersen (sua@mbg.au.dk).

SCARI: Single cell analysis of root hair infection

Rhizobia infect legume roots and induce formation of nitrogen fixing root nodules. Infection occurs through infection threads formed in root hairs in the outermost root cell layer, the epidermis. Plant genes responsive to rhizobium inoculation have been identified in transcriptomic studies, but specific data on the infection process are lacking, because the studies were based on mixed cell populations comprising only a small fraction of infected cells. SCARI will use rapid root epidermis protoplasting and microfluidics-based single-cell sequencing to specifically identify the transcriptional profiles of root hair cells where infection threads are forming. Combining this approach with natural variation in legume-rhizobium compatibility will provide an unprecedented high-resolution view of the transcriptional events required for infection and establish a new basis for understanding how the plant decides whether or not to allow infection to proceed at the individual cell level.

This project is funded by Danmarks Fri Forskningsfond / Independent Research Fund Denmark 2021–2024.

For more information about this project, contact Stig Uggerhøj Andersen (sua@mbg.au.dk).

ZEN: Zero-vicine faba beans

Faba bean is a promising protein crop but accumulates large amounts of vicine and convince in seeds. These antinutrients can induce favism in ~4% of the world’s population afflicted by glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency. Faba bean varieties with reduced content of vicine and convicine are available, but the residual antinutrient content is cause for concern in the food industry. Our earlier work indicates that vicine and convicine are synthesized from overflow metabolites in the riboflavin (vitamin B2) biosynthetic pathway and that the degree of overflow is controlled by the GTP cyclohydrolase VC1. We predict that elimination of one or two enzymes in addition to VC1 will cause the riboflavin pathway to revert to its normal configuration, resulting in zero-vicine faba beans. ZEN will thereby eliminate a major obstacle for the use of locally and sustainably produced protein in the booming plant-based food industry.

This project is funded by Danmarks Fri Forskningsfond / Independent Research Fund Denmark 2022–2026.

For more information about this project, contact Stig Uggerhøj Andersen (sua@mbg.au.dk).

Root2Res: Root phenotyping and genetic improvement for rotational crops resilient to environmental change

As agricultural systems face more and more constraints due to climate change, identifying and developing new crop cultivars able to make production more resilient is a priority. In this context, root systems play a major role as an essential component of the tolerance against abiotic stress (water deficit or excess, nutrition deficiency) and for their contribution to carbon storage in soils. Addressing root traits for breeders, geneticists and agronomists is a real challenge that needs efficient tools: root phenotyping tools both in field and controlled conditions, genetic tools with a set of relevant markers and genetic resources and modelling tools to extrapolate the results in other environments and agricultural contexts.

This project is funded by the European Union (Grant no. 101060124) 2022–2027.

For more information, please see Root2Res or contact Stig Uggerhøj Andersen (sua@mbg.au.dk).

Customized biofertilizers for enhanced yield and earnings in high-protein crops

Current commercial rhizobia biofertilizers contain generic bacteria and perform erratically in different soil conditions. The aim of this project is to create a new generation of rhizobial biofertilizers by designing a solution that offers an optimal i) crop ii) soil and iii) biofertilizer match. Our approach consists of a unique rhizobial soil test followed by high-throughput identification of elite rhizobia in the legume of interest. The rhizobial formulation can be produced as a valuable product because it is a precise, predictable, and efficient biofertilizer.

This project is funded by Innovations Fund Denmark and VILLUM FONDEN 2023–2024.

For more information, contact Marcela Mendoza-Suárez (marcela@mbg.au.dk).


The agricultural impact on climate change can be mitigated by developing local sources of protein. The cultivation of important protein crops in Denmark is limited by dry periods; broad bean (hestebønne) and white clover are especially susceptible to drought. Red clover is another protein crop, but its low protein quality offers a further challenge.

The project’s objective is to reduce the agricultural carbon footprint by achieving a high and stable production of protein in Denmark with crops that are high in protein quality, low in environmental footprint, and are suitable to a climate with periods of drought. Research will identify differences in root development and drought tolerance of different types of broad bean and clovers. The results will be used directly by Danish breeders to choose crossing-parents for development of more robust types. Moreover, we will conduct protein quality analyses of the different red clover genotypes, which can be used to develop new varieties. We will also develop genetic markers for breeding by screening for genes related to differences in protein quality and root development.

The project also directly affects climate impact. By producing a higher yield and more local sources of protein, we can expect to reduce emissions by 83,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. Furthermore, we expect the project to increase the amount of land devoted to protein crops, which will further reduce emissions by 160–260,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

This project is funded by Promilleafgiftsfonden for Landbrug and coordinated by SEGES. Partners are Aarhus University, University of Copenhagen, Sejet Plant Breeding, Nordic Seed and DLF.

For more information, contact Stig Uggerhøj Andersen (sua@mbg.au.dk).

N2CROP - Legume innovation for future agri-food systems

N2CROP is an international hub for legume research and innovation, combining experience in plant genetics, agronomics, crop modelling, and molecular nutrition. The project brings together researchers from Aarhus University, University of Copenhagen, Technical University of Denmark, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and LaTrobe University. The goal of the project is to use legume symbiotic nitrogen fixation as a basis for producing high-quality and nutritious plant protein in sustainable agri-food systems. N2CROP will focus both on input, by enhancing legume nitrogen fixation, and output, by designing seeds with high content of bioavailable protein. Through these innovations, supported by field trials and crop modelling, N2CROP will develop future agri-food systems powered by legume intercropping.

N2CROP is supported for 2023-2029 by the Novo Nordisk Foundation, which has granted DKK 60 million to accelerate the optimization of legumes as food crops.

For more information, visit the N2CROP website or email the project leader, Stig Uggerhøj Andersen.

BELIS: Breeding European Legumes for Increased Sustainability

The aim of BELIS is (i) to increase the competitiveness of the EU and Associated Countries legume breeding industry by improving the methodologies and the governance structures of the breeding sector; (ii) to design conditions that allow an efficient delivery of the achieved genetic progress to the breeders and seed industry, and to the other actors (registration offices, extension services, feed and food industry, farmers). The project will focus on seven forage crops and seven grain crop that are currently grown to produce feed (for ruminants – cattle, sheep, goat and monogastric animals – pig, poultry), food (as is or after processing) or to deliver ecosystem services. BELIS has three main objectives: (1) To develop tools and methodologies for cost-effective breeding programmes and deliver proofs of concept, with and for breeders, (2) To facilitate the economic and regulatory environment: variety registration, variety recommendation and business models, (3) To implement an efficient, ambitious and durable transfer of innovation through the BELIS platform that includes a network of breeders and actors from scientific research, extension services and seed, food and feed industries, as well as a training portfolio. By enabling the creation of improved varieties in many species, adapted to different areas and uses in Europe, this project is relevant for the destinations towards “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”, mainly contributing to “Access to a wider range of crops and breeds with a broadened genetic base is improved in line with global biodiversity commitments”. It also supports the “Practices in agriculture and forestry support biodiversity and the provision of other ecosystems services”. In addition, BELIS will have a positive input on natural biodiversity, reduction of air and water pollutions and farming system sustainability.

AU is one of the members of the BELIS consortium.

For more information on BELIS, visit http://www.belisproject.eu/ or contact the relevant partner at AU, Stig Uggerhøj Andersen. BELIS is funded by the European Union for the years 2023-2028.

Legume Generation - Boosting innovation in breeding for the next generation of legume crops for Europe

The Legume Generation consortium will invest in innovation that boosts the breeding of legumes in Europe by combining the entrepreneurial focus of breeders with the broad inventiveness of the supporting research base. Six species-oriented breeder-led innovation communities will link practical breeding with the research-base in a transdisciplinary framework. They lead the innovation work and each is focused on the breeding of a single species or species type: soya bean (Glycine max); lupins (Lupinus spp); pea (Pisum sativum); lentil (Lens culinaris); phaseolus bean (Phaseolus spp. e.g., ‘common’ bean); and white and red clover (Trifolium repens and T. pratense). These are supported by the cross-project collection of intelligence on ideotype concepts, beneficial traits, a catalogue of legume species and cultivars, and breeding methods assembled in the Legume Generation Knowledge Centre; the production and validation of novel resources (genotypes, methods, and tools); screening, demonstration and testing of germplasm and new cultivars in different regions; training to support breeding gains in our innovation communities; governance and financial models, and business plans for inclusive plant breeding. All this will be supported by consortium internal and external dissemination and communications, including the extension of the European Legume Hub as a platform for sharing of knowledge. We currently run 44 breeding and pre-breeding programmes. We will give these a decisive boost through access to resources that accelerates the production of novel germplasm, innovating up to the point where newly bred germplasm and cultivars are proven on farm. Breeders will use the results to support expansion of legume production. Our innovation communities will be open to all relevant actors and provide a direct route for the dissemination of results to other users and interested stakeholders. Their sustainability beyond the life of the project will be supported by business plans.

For more information, visit https://www.legumehub.eu/legume-generation/ or contact the relevant partner at MBG, Stig Uggerhøj Andersen. Legume Generation is funded by the European Union's Horizon Europe for the years 2023-2028.


Kasper Røjkjær Andersen

Professor Institut for Molekylærbiologi og Genetik - Proteinvidenskab

Stig Uggerhøj Andersen

Professor Institut for Molekylærbiologi og Genetik - Plantemolekylærbiologi

Simona Radutoiu

Professor Institut for Molekylærbiologi og Genetik - Plantemolekylærbiologi

Jens Stougaard

Professor Institut for Molekylærbiologi og Genetik - Plantemolekylærbiologi


Aleksandr Gavrin

Adjunkt Institut for Molekylærbiologi og Genetik - Plantemolekylærbiologi

Peer-reviewed publikationer

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