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Genetic defenders protect crops from fungal disease

STANFORD, CA 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 Mnica Stein of the Carnegie Institution's 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.

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."

Once a powdery mildew infection takes hold, it covers the plant with fuzzy splotches, while sapping precious nutrients. At the cellular level, the fungal spores invade healthy plant cells and form root-like feeding structures called haustoria. The plant cell wall is the primary barrier to this invasion and one of the defense genes described in the current study, called PEN2, prevents the fungus from penetrating cell walls in the first place.

If this first line of defense breaks down, as it does in about 5 to 25 percent of normal Arabidopsis
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Contact: Dr. Shauna Somerville
ssomerville@stanford.edu
650-325-1521 x257
Carnegie Institution
17-Nov-2005


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