Newly identified wheat genes may combat crucial crop disease

Wheatfield_vertical_blogResearchers in the United Kingdom have found two wheat genes that help protect the plant against one of the most economically damaging fungal infections of wheat.

The discovery of two genes that activate the wheat plant’s defenses against the fungi Mycosphaerella graminicola, which causes Septoria leaf blotch (a.k.a. Septoria tritici blotch), may lead to new ways to fight back against the disease down the road. Septoria tritici blotch is a major disease of concern and is widely considered to be one of the most economically important diseases when it comes to wheat, according to a statement from Rothamsted Research.

Septoria tritici blotch, or STB, causes necrotic spots on wheat leaves and is more common in wet, cool weather. It leads to severely reduced crop yields, and what is harvested often is of poorer quality, according to The American Phytopathological Society.

Rothamsted researchers previously found a M. graminicola gene that helps the fungi avoid wheat immune responses, which usually go into action when a pathogen attacks the plant. However, the new research shows wheat is similar to rice in how it identifies and reacts to pathogens using the two-gene system for recognizing chitin and activating the immune response. Eventually, these two genes may be used to combat STB if a way can be found to work around the previously discovered fungal gene.

“This work has identified two genes that are already present in wheat which are perfectly able to provide resistance against STB,” said Dr. Jason Rudd of Rothamsted in a statement . “The remaining problem, and the reason why they currently don’t do this in the field, resides in the fact that the fungus contains a single gene that prevents the two wheat genes from functioning. On this basis it is extraordinary that only three genes in total (two from wheat and one from the fungus) can decide the outcome of the interaction. Their identification opens the way to future biotechnological approaches that could be used to either enhance (for wheat genes) or inhibit (for the pathogen gene) their functions to favor the disease-free plant.”

The study was published in Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions.

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