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Biologists discover new pathway into plant cells

CORVALLIS, Ore. Researchers at Oregon State University have made a major discovery in basic plant biology that may set the stage for profound advances in plant genetics or biotechnology.

The scientists have identified for the first time a protein that can cross plant cell membranes, where it functions as a toxin to kill the cell. It had been known that viruses and bacteria can penetrate cell wall barriers and disrupt plant cells, but never before has a protein been found that could do this by itself.

When more research is done, this may provide a new tool to penetrate plant cells and possibly manipulate their behavior in some beneficial way to grow faster, resist disease or increase yields.

The findings were published today in two articles in The Plant Cell, a professional journal.

Also of considerable interest is that the biological mechanism discovered here bears striking similarity to the way proteins can function in mammalian cells scientists say they may have found a characteristic that has been preserved for more than 600 million years, when plants and animals diverged from a common ancestor on their separate evolutionary paths.

"This is a doorway into plant cells that we never knew existed," said Lynda Ciuffetti, an OSU professor of botany and plant pathology. "Viruses and bacteria have been known to bring proteins into cells, but this is just a protein by itself crossing the cell wall barrier without disrupting its integrity. This is a significant fundamental advance in our understanding of plant biology."

The research was done with a pathogenic fungus that causes tan spot of wheat, a costly plant disease that is found around the world, and in some places can cause crop losses ranging up to 50 percent. These fungi produce multiple toxins that attack wheat plants, reducing yields and ruining wheat used as seed. In the United States, it's a particular problem in the Great Plains and Midwest. Ciuffetti has spent much of her
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Contact: Lynda Ciuffetti
ciuffetl@science.oregonstate.edu
541-737-5267
Oregon State University
2-Nov-2005


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