Rice is the globe's most important crop but its production is constantly threatened by disease. Now scientists at the University of Exeter have shown for the first time, in a paper in the prestigious journal Nature, how the world's most destructive rice-killer hijacks its plant prey.
In order to infect plants the fungus has to inject its proteins into the plant's own cells where they overcome the plant's defences allowing a full scale invasion by the fungus.
Until now it's not been known how the fungus delivers that weaponry, but researchers from the School of Biosciences have identified a single gene that appears to be important in the process.
Professor Nick Talbot, who led the research, said: "We have identified a secretion system that we think is responsible for delivering the fungal weaponry that causes rice-blast disease. We were able to generate a strain of the rice blast fungus which lacks this secretion system and it was completely unable to cause disease. The discovery is significant because it will allow us to identify the fungal proteins which bring about this devastating disease and cause rice plants to die."
He continues: "It's estimated that half of the World's population relies on rice to survive and in one year alone this disease kills enough rice to feed 60 million people, so we hope this discovery will help develop chemicals to inhibit the disease. It's possible that more specific, environmentally friendly, compounds to combat rice diseases could result from this research."
Last year scientists from The University of Exeter helped to complete the sequence of the rice blast fungus genome, which has aided the current research.