Plants vs. disease: 'Trench warfare at the molecular level'

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- By observing the battle between bacterial speck disease and tomatoes, biologists have discovered how plant cells resist some ailments. Researchers from the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) for Plant Research Inc. and Cornell University can now demonstrate how disease-causing organisms deliver destructive agents to plants, and how the plants fight back.

"It's like radar detecting an incoming missile" says Gregory B. Martin, senior scientist at BTI and a Cornell plant pathologist. "Consider it trench warfare at the molecular level." While Cornell and BTI are both located in Ithaca, N.Y., Martin will present this information to a plenary session of the American Society of Plant Biologists on Tuesday, July 24, at 4 p.m. at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence. The session is titled "Signal transduction mechanisms in plant defense activation."

One combatant is Pseudomonas syringae , the bacterium responsible for causing bacterial speck disease. Martin and his colleagues have learned that P. syringae attacks healthy tomato plants by attaching itself to the plant cell, inserting a microscopic tube and sending a pathogenic protein -- like ammunition -- into the cell.

Despite the attack, the plant cell is prepared for the invading onslaught. Using a molecular surveillance system behind the cell wall, the plant cell detects alien proteins and mounts a defense.

Although bacterial speck disease has been known since the early 1930s, it did not result in serious losses until the winter tomato crop of 1977-78 in southern Florida. Cool, moist

environmental conditions contributed to the development of the disease, and it has now established itself as a major production problem, according to Thomas A. Zitter, Cornell professor of plant pathology.

The disease produces black lesions, often with a discrete yellow halo that can appear on the plant leaves and cause them to curl. Growers had been instructed

Contact: Blaine P. Friedlander, Jr.
Cornell University News Service

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