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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