Small molecules below-ground: the role of specialized metabolites in the rhizosphere

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Soil communities are diverse taxonomically and functionally. This ecosystem experiences highly complex networks of interactions, but may also present functionally independent entities. Plant roots, a metabolically active hotspot in the soil, take an essential part in below-ground interactions. While plants are known to release an extremely high portion of the fixated carbon to the soil, less information is known about the composition and role of C-containing compounds in the rhizosphere, in particular those involved in chemical communication. Specialized metabolites (or secondary metabolites) produced by plants and their associated microbes have a critical role in various biological activities that modulate the behavior of neighboring organisms. Thus, elucidating the chemical composition and function of specialized metabolites in the rhizosphere is a key element in understanding interactions in this below-ground environment. Here, we review key classes of specialized metabolites that occur as mostly non-volatile compounds in root exudates or are emitted as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The role of these metabolites in below-ground interactions and response to nutrient deficiency, as well as their tissue and cell type-specific biosynthesis and release are discussed in detail.