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

cell. However, when an insect starts gnawing at the young maize, it breaks the cell compartments. The enzyme beta-glucosidase breaks the DIMBOA-glucoside down into glucose and DIMBOA, and the DIMBOA is toxic to insects. However, 14 of 463 inbred lines of maize tested in a study seemed to lack the enzyme. They are called NULL.

Using spectrophotometric detection, Esen and Bevan found that all the NULL lines actually did have active beta-glucosidase, but the enzyme became aggregated and could not be extracted efficiently. From this discovery, the scientists knew the enzyme was there, but something was keeping it in the large aggregate.

Using a procedure called gel filtration that separates proteins according to size, the researchers then found that the cause of aggregation was another protein, the beta-glucosidase aggregating factor (BGAF), which NULL lines produced in excess. They isolated BGAF and proved its aggregating activity.

After further study, the scientists found that BGAF was a hybrid protein with two distinct regions or domains, a disease-response region and a carbohydrate-binding region (lectin). In nature, the two occur as separate proteins, but in all the grass species studied so far, they were fused, probably millions of years ago in the ancestors of the grasses. Such things usually happen as accidents (mutations), and, if advantageous, they get selected and passed to future generations.

Surfaces of cells have glycoproteins that lectins recognize by their carbohydrate portion and bind to. The BGAF's lectin region is similar to lectins that recognize mannose sugar. Esen and Bevan hypothesized that one of the functions of BGAF is in defense when foreign cells, such as bacteria, fungus, or viruses, try to enter the cell. BGAF probably binds foreign cells, marks them, and recruits other components of the defense system to eventually arrest the development of the foreign elements and kill them. So the beta

Contact: Sally Harris
Virginia Tech

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