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  1. Societal Impact Statement

    The practice of writing science blogs benefits both the scientist and society alike by providing professional development opportunities and delivering information in a format that is accessible to large and diverse audiences. By designing a project that introduced upper‐level undergraduate students to science blog writing with a focus on plant biology, we piqued students' interest in science writing and the content of a popular plant science blog website. If adopted more widely, this work could broaden the scope of science education and promote the development of effective science communication skills for the next generation of scientists.

    Summary

    Successful scientists must communicate their research to broad audiences, including distilling key scientific concepts for the general public. Students pursuing careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields benefit from developing public communication skills early in their careers, but opportunities are limited in traditional biology curricula.

    We created the “Plant Science Blogging Project” for a Plant Biology undergraduate course at the University of Pittsburgh in Fall 2018 and 2019. Students wrote blog posts merging personal connections with plants with plant biology concepts for the popular science blogsPlant Love StoriesandEvoBites. By weaving biology into their narratives, students learned how to share botanical knowledge with the general public.

    The project had positive impacts on student learning and public engagement. In post‐assignment surveys, the majority of students reported that they enjoyed the assignment, felt it improved their understanding of plant biology, and piqued their interest in reading and writing science blogs in the future. Approximately one‐third of the student‐authored blogs were published, including two that rose to the top 10 most‐read posts on Plant Love Stories. Some dominant themes in student blogs, including medicine and culture, differed from common story themes published on the web, indicating the potential for students to diversify science blog content.

    Overall, the Plant Science Blogging Project allows undergraduate students to engage with plant biology topics in a new way, sharpen their scientific communication skills in accordance with today's world of mass information sharing, and contribute to the spread of scientific knowledge for public benefit.

     
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  2. Premise

    Polyploidy is a major genetic driver of ecological and evolutionary processes in plants, yet its effects on plant interactions with mutualistic microbes remain unresolved. The legume–rhizobium symbiosis regulates global nutrient cycles and plays a role in the diversification of legume species. In this mutualism, rhizobia bacteria fix nitrogen in exchange for carbon provided by legume hosts. This exchange occurs inside root nodules, which house bacterial cells and represent the interface of legume–rhizobium interactions. Although polyploidy may directly impact the legume–rhizobium mutualism, no studies have explored how it alters the internal structure of nodules.

    Methods

    We created synthetic autotetraploids usingMedicago sativasubsp.caerulea. Neotetraploid plants and their diploid progenitors were singly inoculated with two strains of rhizobia,Sinorhizobium melilotiandS. medicae. Confocal microscopy was used to quantify internal traits of nodules produced by diploid and neotetraploid plants.

    Results

    Autotetraploid plants produced larger nodules with larger nitrogen fixation zones than diploids for both strains of rhizobia, although the significance of these differences was limited by power. NeotetraploidM. sativasubsp.caeruleaplants also produced symbiosomes that were significantly larger, nearly twice the size, than those present in diploids.

    Conclusions

    This study sheds light on how polyploidy directly affects a plant–bacterium mutualism and uncovers novel mechanisms. Changes in plant–microbe interactions that directly result from polyploidy likely contribute to the increased ability of polyploid legumes to establish in diverse environments.

     
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  3. Summary

    Polyploidy is a key driver of ecological and evolutionary processes in plants, yet little is known about its effects on biotic interactions. This gap in knowledge is especially profound for nutrient acquisition mutualisms, despite the fact that they regulate global nutrient cycles and structure ecosystems. Generalism in mutualistic interactions depends on the range of potential partners (niche breadth), the benefits obtained and ability to maintain benefits across a variety of partners (fitness plasticity). Here, we determine how each of these is influenced by polyploidy in the legume–rhizobium mutualism.

    We inoculated a broad geographic sample of natural diploid and autotetraploid alfalfa (Medicago sativa) lineages with a diverse panel ofSinorhizobiumbacterial symbionts. To analyze the extent and mechanism of generalism, we measured host growth benefits and functional traits.

    Autotetraploid plants obtained greater fitness enhancement from mutualistic interactions and were better able to maintain this across diverse rhizobial partners (i.e. low plasticity in fitness) relative to diploids. These benefits were not attributed to increases in niche breadth, but instead reflect increased rewards from investment in the mutualism.

    Polyploid plants displayed greater generalization in bacterial mutualisms relative to diploids, illustrating another axis of advantage for polyploids over diploids.

     
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  4. Summary

    The flower is the hallmark of angiosperms and its evolution is key to their diversification. As knowledge of ecological interactions between flowers and their microbial communities (the anthosphere) expands, it becomes increasingly important to consider the evolutionary impacts of these associations and their potential eco‐evolutionary dynamics. In this Viewpoint we synthesize current knowledge of the anthosphere within a multilevel selection framework and illustrate the potential for the extended floral phenotype (the phenotype expressed from the genes of the plant and its associated flower microbes) to evolve. We argue that flower microbes are an important, but understudied, axis of variation that shape floral trait evolution and angiosperm reproductive ecology. We highlight knowledge gaps and discuss approaches that are critical for gaining a deeper understanding of the role microbes play in mediating plant reproduction, ecology, and evolution.

     
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