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Plant-Bacteria Symbiosis: A Key Communication for the Global Ecosystem

Microbiology & Molecular Biology Featured Grad Student

Even before making the switch to study microbiology, Alex Benedict had a keen interest in microorganisms and their functions. Currently, he is studying the symbiotic relationship between plants and bacteria.
Photo by Kalicia Bateman

As a college freshman, Alex Benedict, now a microbiology PhD student, was going to study communications. Although he enjoyed his classes, he was more intrigued by what his roommate was learning in his microbiology courses. Benedict signed up for a microbiology class to see if it was a good fit and never turned back.

“I loved it all,” Benedict says. “Anything from medical microbiology to basic science—how life works—was really cool to me.”

With a passion for all facets of the microbiology discipline, Benedict found it difficult to decide what direction he wanted his career to take. He considered medical school and PA school, but ultimately landed in research. As he gained experience in the lab, Benedict knew that he had made the right decision.

Currently, Benedict is working in Dr. Joel Griffitts’ lab, from whom he took one of his first microbiology classes as an undergraduate student at BYU. Griffitts’ lab focuses on research pertaining to plant-bacteria relationships and how microorganisms respond to peptides—short chains of amino acids.

Benedict’s research has focused on rhizobia, bacteria found in soil, and how it engages in symbiosis with legume plants. Symbiosis between plants and bacteria is an important environmental process that defines the global nitrogen and carbon cycle and determines the livelihood of global vegetation. The relationship between rhizobia and legume plants is important because the rhizobia attach to plant roots as nodules, making it possible for the plant to engage in nitrogen fixation. Plants cannot fix nitrogen on their own, and bacteria need a host to do so.

While analyzing this important plant-bacteria relationship, Benedict and his team discovered that a specific bacteria strain wasn’t fixing nitrogen, causing plants to become quite sickly. The cause of this phenomenon are peptidases, which Benedict describes as a “weapon which this particular bacteria has to defend itself.” Peptidases are enzymes that break down peptides, hindering the bacteria’s ability to convert nitrogen into ammonium. Peptides are crucial to the nitrogen fixation process, as they enter into the bacteria, causing them to swell, and it is only in this state that bacteria can convert nitrogen.

The opportunity to conduct this research at BYU has been very important to Benedict because it offered him the opportunity to develop himself as a microbiologist and researcher: “The mentorship here [at BYU] is really good . . . We have such talented faculty here, and they want to give back to students the best that they can.”

Looking to the future, Benedict hopes to teach, sharing his passion for microbiology and offering students the same mentorship that he is grateful to have received throughout his time in BYU’s College of Life Sciences.