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Spotlight   | Spring 2008

Gene guards grain-producing grasses

Purdue University and USDA-Agricultural Research Service scientists have discovered that a type of gene in grain-producing plants halts infection by a disease-causing fungus that can destroy crops vital for human food supplies.

three men in corn lab
Research by this trio of Purdue and USDA-ARS scientists, Guri Johal (front), Steve Schofield (at left) and Michael Zanis, is the first to show that a gene in all grasses stops infection by a highly destructive fungus. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

The research team is the first to show that the same biochemical process protects an entire plant family—grasses—from Cochliobolus carbonum, race 1, a devastating fungal pathogen. The naturally occurring disease resistance probably is responsible for the survival of grains and other grasses over the past 60 million years.

A resistance gene, first discovered in corn, and the fungal toxin-fighting enzyme it produces apparently provide a biological mechanism that guards all grass species from this fungus, says Guri Johal, a Purdue associate professor of botany and plant pathology.

"We think that if the gene Hm1 had not evolved, then grasses would have had a hard time surviving and thriving, or, at least, the geographic distribution would have been restricted," Johal says. "This plant resistance gene is durable and is indispensable against this fungal group, which has the ability to destroy any part of the plant at any stage of development."

The findings will stimulate the design of new resistance strategies against additional diseases in grasses and other plants.



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