Breakthrough in fighting plant disease

A global research team including scientists from La Trobe University have identified specific locations within plants’ chromosomes capable of transferring immunity to their offspring.

The findings could lead to new ways of preventing disease in crops – of great potential benefit to farmers.

Led by the University of Sheffield (UK), the research team identified, for the first time, specific locations (loci) within a plant’s chromosomes that impart disease resistance to their offspring by undergoing a reversible biochemical modification known as DNA methylation, in response of pathogen attack.

Published in the journal eLife, the research identifies four DNA loci that control disease resistance against a common plant pathogen called downy mildew. Importantly, this resistance was not associated with any negative effects on growth or resistance against other environmental stresses.

La Trobe University Research Fellow Dr Ritushree Jain said that when plants are repetitively attacked by pathogens, they develop a ‘memory’ (known as priming in plants) of this encounter which enables them to fight efficiently when attacked again.

“One of the mechanisms for transferring this ‘memory’ to their next generation via seeds is DNA methylation,” Dr Jain said.

“It is an epigenetic phenomenon – meaning there is no change in the DNA sequence.”

Dr Jain explained the potential benefit to farmers these findings offer.

“Not only could this significant discovery lead to new ways of preventing disease in important crops, but it could also help reduce our reliance on pesticides,” Dr Jain said.

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