Home News Climate Change Breaks Plant Immune Systems. Can They Be Rebooted?

Climate Change Breaks Plant Immune Systems. Can They Be Rebooted?


Much of this work was done on the hardy Arabidopsis thaliana — the “lab mouse of the plant,” as he puts it. A few things make it the perfect test subject. One reason is that the humble weed has a fairly short genome, which is part of the reason it was the first plant to be fully sequenced. Another is the unique way its code can be modified. For most plants, the process is painstaking. New genetic material is introduced into petri dishes, carried by bacteria that slide into plant cells. Once this happens, these modified cells must be cultured and induced into new roots and shoots. But Arabidopsis offers a shortcut. Biologists simply dip the plant’s flower in a solution full of gene-carrying bacteria, and the information goes directly to the seed, which can be easily planted. In the extremely slow field of botany, this is advancing at a warp speed.

Still, it will take years to figure out what all these SA-producing genes do under perfect greenhouse conditions. Only then can Ho’s team start tampering with the environment to test what went wrong. Their task: to find the gene (or genes) that control whatever steps prevent SA production when it gets hot. It took 10 years to find the answer. One by one, they modified the genes, infecting the plants and observing the effects. But no matter what they do, the plants still wilt from disease. “You wouldn’t believe how many failed experiments we have,” he said. Major clues, such as another lab’s identification of heat-responsive genes that affect flowering and growth, ended in disappointing results. Generations of graduate students have kept the project going. “My job is mostly to be their cheerleader,” he said.

Ultimately, the lab found a winner.The gene is called CBP60g, which appears to act as a “master switch” for many of the steps involved in making an SA. The process of taking these genetic instructions and producing the protein is stifled by intermediate molecular steps. The key is to bypass it.They found that researchers could force plants to transcribe by introducing a new piece of code — a “promoter” extracted from a virus — CBP60g and resume the SA pipeline. There was another obvious benefit: The change also appeared to help restore little-known disease-resistance genes that were suppressed by heat.

His team has since begun testing genetic modifications in food crops, such as rapeseed, a close relative of Arabidopsis. In addition to its genetic similarity, it’s a great plant because it grows in cooler climates, where plants are more susceptible to warmer temperatures, he said. So far, the team has successfully restarted the immune response in the lab, but they need field testing. Other potential candidates include wheat, soybeans and potatoes.

Given the ubiquity of the SA pathway, it’s no surprise that He’s gene repair would be widespread in many plants, says Marc Nishimura, a plant immunity expert at Colorado State University who was not involved in the study. But this is just one of many climate-sensitive immune pathways that biologists need to explore. He noted that in addition to heat waves, there are other variables that can affect a plant’s immunity, such as increased humidity or persistent heat that lasts throughout the growing season. “It may not be the perfect solution for every plant, but it gives you a general idea of ​​what’s going wrong and how to fix it,” he said. He sees it as a victory for using basic science to decipher plant genes.

But for this to work, consumers will need to embrace more genetically modified foods. Another option, Nishimura said, is more crop loss and more pesticides to prevent it. “As climate change accelerates, we will be under pressure to learn things in the lab and put them in the field faster,” he said. “I don’t see how we’re going to do this without more acceptance of transgenic plants.”

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