Cress could hold the key to curb losses of disease-ridden crops

Edinburgh University scientists discover new plant gene.
Edinburgh University scientists discover new plant gene.
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Edinburgh University scientists used the common cress plant to unlock a new gene that could help plants control their response to disease.

The findings could lead to ways could help to develop crops that are resistant to infection, which could also mirror human responses.

Researchers said the discovery could help fine-tune the gene’s activity to boost disease resistance, pointing towards more resilient crop breeds or new treatments for infections.

It could help curb worldwide crop losses by plant diseases which result in 10 per cent of lost produce.

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh studied how, when plants are under attack from bacteria or viruses, they produce tiny amounts of a gas known as nitric oxide. This gas accumulates in plant cells and triggers a response from the plant’s immune system.

Professor Gary Loake, of the School of Biological Sciences, who led the study, said: “Our findings provide a missing link between mechanisms that activate and suppress the plant’s response to disease. We were surprised to see this might be common to humans too.”

They also found that nitric oxide regulates the immune response, ensuring the plant’s defence system does not over-react.

An overactive immune system damages plants and stunts their growth, in the same way that auto-immune diseases in people cause the immune system to attack the body.

Researchers used a common cress plant to study the genes that were triggered as nitric oxide levels rose.

They found that a previously unknown gene – called SRG1 – is rapidly activated by nitric oxide and is also triggered during bacterial infection.

Further analysis showed that SRG1 unleashes the plant’s defence mechanism by limiting the activity of genes that suppress the immune response.

By altering the activity of the SRG1 gene, the team was able to demonstrate that plants with higher levels of defence proteins produced by the gene were more resistant to infection.

Researchers say that similar mechanisms, are likely to be found in many other species, and their findings could enable insights into fundamental processes that underlie immune regulation.

The study, published in Nature Communications, was funded by the BBSRC and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

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