Scientists from the Sainsbury Laboratory (SL), Norwich report in the journal Nature that important plant diseases previously thought only to infect plants through their leaves may also enter through the plant’s roots. They report that the rice leaf blast fungus is able to use very different routes and means of attacking the rice plant by switching between two completely different programmes of developmental events; one programme is characteristic of leaf-infecting fungi and the other characteristic of root-infecting fungi. If this previously unsuspected ability is widespread amongst diseases of important crops it will have implications for our current strategies for controlling diseases by using chemical sprays and plant breeding, and for our understanding of how changing agriculture practices may alter disease prevalence.
“This is a fascinating discovery” says Dr Anne Osbourn (leader of the research team at the SL). “Plant diseases are usually highly-specialised to be able to infect a particular plant tissue. We have demonstrated that a fungus that we normally associate with the rice leaf and that has a sophisticated system for entering and infecting the leaf tissue, can switch on a completely different infection system to enable it to penetrate the rice plant’s root. When it comes to invading its host plant, the rice leaf blast fungus is keeping its options open”.
Rice is the staple food for half of the world’s population. Rice blast is one of the most damaging diseases of cultivated rice and so is a constant threat the world’s food supply. Strategies to control the disease depend on the use of varieties that are resistant to disease attack and the application of fungicides, but neither of these methods is particularly effective. The development of durable, environmentally friendly strategies for the control of rice blast disease will depend on a better understanding of how the disease organism infects its host.
Ray Mathias | alfa
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