Plant pathogens like the one that led to the notorious Irish Potato Famine of the 1840's are still the subject of intense research at institutions like the University of California Riverside, as the battle continues between mega-crop farmers and diseases that have learned to infiltrate the plant’s immune system. Just what the genetic mechanism is that allows for that infiltration has remained elusive until recently. Studying the notorious oomycete pathogen Phytophthora in its multiple forms, UC Riverside researchers have identified a crucial step in the disease attack of the cell, namely the activity of virulence proteins in blocking RNA silencing pathways, which leads to immune system compromise. The role of RNA silencing as an important immune component is a new research direction and one that is being pioneered at UCR.
[Phytophthora infestans, or late potato blight, courtesy of Wikipedia]
Dr. Wenbo Ma is the principle investigator on the UCR team that recently published its research article, Oomycete pathogens encode RNA silencing suppressors, in the journal Nature Genetics. The team began their study by focusing on a type of protein that pathogens like Phytophthora produce, called effectors, in order to alter the host organism's immune response. These effectors work by interrupting the RNA silencing function that is an important regulatory tool in healthy cells, according to Ma. The protein-producing task of some RNA's can be regulated or silenced by the attachment of short strands of RNA known as small interfering RNA (siRNA). While protein production is vital to cell reproduction, it is also a component of pathogen growth, and regulation via selective RNA silencing becomes part of a plant's defense system.
Dr. Ma describes the larger implications of her team's research in a UCR press release:
“Phytophthora has evolved a way to break the immunity of its host plants. Its effectors are the first example of proteins produced by eukaryotic pathogens — nucleated single- or multi-cellular organisms — that promote infection by suppressing the host RNA silencing process. Our work shows that RNA silencing suppression is a common strategy used by a variety of pathogens — viruses, bacteria and Phytophthora — to cause disease, and shows, too, that RNA silencing is an important battleground during infection by pathogens across kingdoms.”
[Wenbo Ma, courtesy of UCR Strategic Communications]
The Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology in Riverside where Dr. Ma is an associate professor actually predates the University of California Riverside by about 50 years. It was established in 1905 by the State of California as part of an agriculture experiment station. Shortly thereafter it became formalized as the Citrus Experiment Station and offered a graduate program. For years after affiliated with UCLA, the Plant Pathology and Microbiology research program maintained that affiliation even after UCR was founded in 1954. In 1963 it became a department wholly within UCR.
Which is to say that agricultural research, both in the lab and in the field, is the keystone of UC Riverside scientific excellence and what makes the university a global player in the study of plant biology and pathogenesis, including research in the areas of:
- molecular biology
- cell biology
- evolutionary biology
- and traditional aspects of disease control
For earlier blogs of ours on plant research at UC Riverside, read:
Dr. Ma's research is funded by the NSF and USDA. Significant partnerships with industry and state agencies also provide support for UC Riverside's agricultural research mission.
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