Plants don’t have a bloodstream to circulate immune cells. Instead, they use receptors on the outsides of their cells to identify molecules that signal a microbial invasion, and respond by releasing a slew of antimicrobial compounds. Theoretically, identifying genes that kick off this immune response and dialing up their activity should yield superstrong plants.
Plant biologist Xinnian Dong at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has been studying one of these genes for 20 years—a “master regulator,” she says, of plant defense. The gene, called NPR1 in the commonly studied thale cress plant (Arabidopsis thaliana)—a small and weedy plant topped with white flowers—has been a popular target for scientists trying to boost immune systems of rice, wheat, apples, tomatoes, and more.
To make NPR1 useful, researchers needed a better control switch—one that would crank up the immune response only when the plant was under attack, but otherwise would turn it down to let the plants grow. Two papers published in Nature … describe the discovery and application of such a mechanism.
The result is a strain of rice that can rapidly and reversibly ramp up its immune system in bursts that are strong enough to fend off offending pathogens but short enough to avoid the stunted growth seen in previously engineered crops.
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