Like waves of soldiers guarding a castle gate, multiple genetic defenders cooperate to protect plant cells against powdery mildew disease, according to a new study. Powdery mildew is a common fungal infection in plants that attacks more than 9,000 species, including many crops such as barley and wheat, and horticultural plants such as roses and cucumbers. The researchers, including Shauna Somerville and Mónica Stein of the Carnegie Institutions Department of Plant Biology, are the first to document how these defense genes team up in plants. The discovery could help combat fungal parasites that devastate crops and cost growers billions of dollars in pesticides every year.
Arabidopsis plants inoculated with Erysiphe pisi fungal spores are shown here. From left to right, plants with no mutations (WT), a disabled PEN2 gene, disabled PAD4 and SAG101 genes, and all three disabled genes together are increasingly vulnerable to the fungus. This last variant is the most susceptible to infection; it allowed E pisi to proliferate as well as it does on pea plants, its normal host. (Images printed with permission from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science, November 18, 2005, issue.)
The study, published in the November 18 issue of the journal Science, describes powdery mildew infection in the mustard relative Arabidopsis thaliana. Each species of mildew is host-specific, meaning it can infect some plant species, but not others. By disabling protective genes in Arabidopsis, the researchers were able to infect the plants with species of powdery mildew that normally attack peas or barley, revealing much about how plants use genes to fight infection.
"Most plants are resistant to the majority of pathogens they encounter, but the basis for this resistance was unknown," Somerville said. "Identifying these genes has provided us with the first insight into how plants defend against multiple pathogens."
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