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Stress memory in plants could hold key to growing disease resistant crops


by Rebecca Ferguson, University of Sheffield
A mechanism behind how plants can develop long-term immunity to stress has been discovered by scientists at the University of Sheffield.

Biotic stress experienced by plants can take the form of attacks by insect herbivores or disease-causing pathogens. In crops grown for food production, this stress provides a substantial risk to crop yields and is currently managed with the widespread use of pesticides, which are damaging for the environment and can pose a risk to human health.

Due to the urgent need to find better and more sustainable plant protection methods, Professor Jurriaan Ton, from the University of Sheffield's Institute for Sustainable Food, and his team, investigated how plants are able to acquire long-lasting immunity against these stressors.

The findings, published in Nature Plants, explain a mechanism of how plants 'remember' the stress from a previous attack, and that this long-term memory is encoded in a family of 'junk DNA' that can prime defense genes for several weeks against further attacks.

Dr. Ton, a Professor of Plant Environmental Signaling from the University of Sheffield's School of Biosciences and senior author of the study said the findings offer new opportunities to control plant immunity for sustainable crop protection, and reduce our reliance on damaging pesticides for food production.

He said, "We rely on plants to feed the planet, but they are essentially at the bottom of the food chain, they cannot move, so they are incredibly vulnerable to attack from all sides, including insect herbivores and disease-causing pathogens. Like animals, however, plants have evolved the ability to acquire immunity after recovery from biotic stress, but they use different mechanisms to do so."

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