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Researchers discover defense mechanisms in some plants believed bred out by humans

Blacksburg, Va., Humans and animals have a "fight or flight" response to danger, but plants can't flee. They originally had a built-in defense system to protect them from bugs and injuries, but some plants that were cultivated to serve humans' needs lost the ability to defend themselves. So costly pesticides that are sometimes harmful to the environment now defend the plants from the same things they used to be able to fight on their own.

Asim Esen, biology professor in Virginia Tech's College of Science, and David R. Bevan, biochemistry professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, received a four-year, $711,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the specific interaction between an enzyme and another protein, both of which are believed to be involved in helping plants defend themselves against pests. "If we can understand how the plant defense system works, we can optimize it in such a way that plants can defend themselves without using pesticides," Esen said.

"Plants have been around for millions of years and defended themselves before chemical pesticides," Esen said. However, because of selection of plant traits by humans, some plants can't even propagate themselves now. Eight thousand years ago, maize, or corn, could both defend itself and drop seeds to grow a new generation. But as humans selected for the cob and the ear, they made it impossible for the seed to get out and disperse itself; so maize now can't sustain itself. "We mutilated it," Esen said. "It can't survive on its own."

However, maize can still defend itself. Esen and Bevan are looking at the way its defense mechanism works. Young maize--the young seedlings and any growing tissues and organs--has two enzymes that help protect against insect attacks. Beta-glucosidases reside in the plastid of the maize cells, and their substrate DIMBOA-glucoside resides in the vacuole part of the cell. Usually, the two do not meet each other in an intact
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Contact: Sally Harris
slharris@vt.edu
540-231-6759
Virginia Tech
18-Nov-2004


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