When most people think of plants, they think of things like flowers or trees. However, plants are much more than that. They are incredibly complex organisms that can do amazing things. For example, a new study from Duke University, as reported by Robin A. Smith, has found that plants can reprogram their cells to improve their immunity. Duke University professor Xinnian Dong and her team found out that plants can react to danger and damage by reprogramming their immune system.
Many types of plants are subjected to disease, including fungal infections, viral diseases, and bacterial diseases. When a plant senses a microbial infection, it makes significant changes in the chemical soup of proteins – the body’s workhorse molecules – inside its cells. These changes enable the plant to fight off the infection and prevent it from spreading.
The immune system of plants is different from the system of animals
Immune cells in animals can travel through the bloodstream to quickly reach sites of infection, but plants don’t have that same luxury. Every cell in a plant needs to be strong enough to fight off infections, meaning they all have to go into “battle mode.” This is why plants are so good at developing resistance to diseases. In the report, Dong shares that bacteria and fungi reduce about 15% of lost crop yield every year, costing the global economy over $220 billion.
In times of war, factories retool to support the needs of battle. To hear @DukeU professor Xinnian Dong tell it, plants can shift from peacetime to wartime production too. Here's how. https://t.co/0KX1orJ6hG @xdong23 @DukeBiology @DukeTrinity pic.twitter.com/9mgO1r2Ekz
— Duke Research & Innovation (@dukeresearch) August 25, 2022
However, as nearly every organism does not have unlimited energy and resources, plants will also need to balance how much of their energy is spent to fight infection and improve immunity and how much energy is spent in the general photosynthesis process, which they require to stay “alive”. In other words, plants need to be able to find the right balance of energy expenditure to stay alive and well. This is something that Dong and her team are also working on. They hope that their research will one day help plants achieve this balance, making them even more resistant to disease.
How proteins could prevent crop loss and food shortages like that
This research might not be concluded, but it is leading us in an interesting direction. Could this sort of result lead us to projects to prevent crop loss? Could we translate some of the results to animal or human biology to prevent diseases? Dong and her team conducted most of their experiments with Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant that resembles mustard. She adds, “…similar mRNA sequences have been found in other organisms, including fruit flies, mice, and humans, so they may play a broader role in controlling protein synthesis in plants and animals alike”.
This research could have a significant impact on agriculture. If farmers can learn to harness the power of plants’ cell-based immunity, they may be able to develop more disease-resistant crops. This would lead to bigger and better yields, which would be a major boon for the agricultural industry. The next step for Dong and her team is to figure out how to activate a plant’s cell-based immunity without damaging the plant. They are also working on developing a way to target specific diseases with this cell-based immunity. If they are successful, plants may one day be able to fight off diseases without any help from humans.
YouTube: NAS Research Briefing – Elucidating Plant Immune Mechanisms (Xinnian Dong)
Photo credit: The feature image is symbolic and has been taken by Budabar.
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