A team of researchers at the University of Toronto has successfully tested a new strategy for identifying genetic resources critical for the ongoing battle against plant pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses that infect and destroy food crops worldwide.
"As much as 40 per cent of global crop yield annually is lost to pests and pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing microorganisms," said David Guttman, a professor in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology (CSB) at the University of Toronto and co-author of a study published in Science. "In Canada, pathogens of the top five crops cause annual losses of approximately CDN $3.2B, even with no significant outbreaks."
By focusing on the near limitless arsenal of disease-associated genes available to pathogens, and the defences available to plants, they not only uncovered new insights into the ways plants survive relentless attacks, they developed a blueprint that could one day be used to protect the health of any species grown for food production.
"We wanted to know how relatively long-lived plants defend themselves against very rapidly evolving disease-causing pathogens, why disease is so uncommon even while plants are under continual attack by these highly diverse pathogens, and why domesticated crop species are so much more susceptible to pathogen attacks than wild species," said Guttman.
Guttman and fellow CSB professor Darrell Desveaux, who co-led the study, addressed these questions by specifically asking how a single plant is able to fight off the attacks of a common, bacterial, crop pathogen. They did this by first characterizing the global diversity of an important class of pathogen proteins, called effectors.