Plants are colonised by millions of microorganisms representing thousands of species with varying effects on plant growth and health. The microbial communities found on plants are compositionally consistent and their overall positive effect on the plant is well known. However, the effects of individual microbiota members on plant hosts and vice versa, as well as the underlying mechanisms, remain largely unknown. Here, we describe “Litterbox”, a highly controlled system to investigate plant–microbe interactions. Plants were grown gnotobiotically, otherwise sterile, on zeolite-clay, a soil replacement that retains enough moisture to avoid subsequent watering. Litterbox-grown plants resemble greenhouse-grown plants more closely than agar-grown plants and exhibit lower leaf epiphyte densities (106
cfu/g), reflecting natural conditions. A polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) sheet was used to cover the zeolite, significantly lowering the bacterial load in the zeolite and rhizosphere. This reduced the likelihood of potential systemic responses in leaves induced by microbial rhizosphere colonisation. We present results of example experiments studying the transcriptional responses of leaves to defined microbiota members and the spatial distribution of bacteria on leaves. We anticipate that this versatile and affordable plant growth system will promote microbiota research and help in elucidating plant-microbe interactions and their underlying mechanisms.
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