Breakthrough in research on defense protein against plant diseases

Spraying of potatoes against Phytophthora infestans. Plant breeders are looking to genetic solutions as an alternative to pesticides. - Photo: Mark Pasveer
Spraying of potatoes against Phytophthora infestans. Plant breeders are looking to genetic solutions as an alternative to pesticides. - Photo: Mark Pasveer

New discovery may help against dreaded diseases such as Phytophthora infestans in potatoes.

Researchers have solved the structure of the key plant defense protein NPR1. Understanding how the protein works and interacts with other molecules has considerable potential to be very powerful for enhancing disease resistance in plants, reports SciTechDaily.

Engineer better crops

Engineering plant cells to produce high levels of NPR1 has proven successful in the lab and in limited field trials, but with one catch: as immunity increases, growth declines. The newfound knowledge of NPR1’s structure and behavior could help researchers skirt this problem and engineer better crops.

NPR1 was discovered twenty-five years ago by biologist Xinnian Dong, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. The structure of the key plant defense protein NPR1 was solved by a team of scientists at Duke University led by Pei Zhou. Without detailed structure data, scientists have struggled to understand how the protein governs plant protection, Zhou said. “What’s really crucial and missing is an explanation of how NPR1 works on a molecular level.”

Change the face of plant breeding

In new work that unveils how NPR1 looks and acts, Zhou and Dong’s teams bridge that gap – a find that could change the face of plant breeding. Zhou, Dong, and their colleagues solved NPR1’s structure using x-ray crystallography and the imaging technique cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). High-resolution images of NPR1 and its key functional regions reveal that two NPR1 proteins come together, forming a structure that resembles a bird with unfurled wings. At the wing tips, NPR1 binds to molecules in the cell’s nucleus to turn on plant immune genes, Dong’s team discovered.

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The discovery could help plant breeders engineer plant cells to produce high levels of NPR1 without a decline in growth and fight off pests and pathogens such as Phytophthora infestans in potatoes and pathogens that currently plague bananas, avocados and other popular crops.

Claver
Hugo Claver Web editor for Future Farming



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