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Manipulating Plant Genes To Fight Viruses

Plant DNA

A research group have modified a plant gene, designed to combat bacterial infections, to fight a virus. This is the first time a plant defense system has been used to combat a new disease.

The immune response in plants functions by sensing pathogens through damage caused to cell walls. The basis of the defense is then to restrict the flow of nutrients to the region where the pathogen has been detected. One weakness with the system is that plants can only sense certain pathogens meaning that some serious pathogens become missed.

To improve the range of pathogens detected, researchers have experimented with ‘decoy’ proteins designed to trigger plant defences to tackle other pathogens. Work was conducted on Arabidopsis thaliana, a mustard plant and mouse-ear cress.

Through experiments the scientists were able to broaden the recognition ability of a sensor protein designed to detect a bacterial pathogen called Pseudomonas syringae. The protein was reconfigured to detect different viruses: turnip mosaic virus and tobacco etch virus. Through this the disease resistance of the plant was expanded.

The specific work and the more general implications could reap huge benefits for agriculture, improving crop survival and yields and delivering economic benefits.  Further work will be conducted on soybeans.

The research was conducted at Indiana University and it has been reported to the journal Science. The paper is titled “Using decoys to expand the recognition specificity of a plant disease resistance protein.”

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.