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Fighting Plant Disease At Warm Temperatures Keeps Food On The Table
 
An issue of global concern is the anticipated shortage of agricultural output to meet the steady rise in human population. Michigan State University scientists understand that overcoming crop loss due to disease and adverse weather will be key in achieving this goal.
 
One of the best historical examples of this is the Irish Potato Famine. Beginning in 1845, Ireland experienced the "perfect storm" of unusually cool, damp weather that provided prime growing conditions for an exotic pathogen that destroyed the potato crop. With their primary food source ravaged by disease, a million Irish people died from the ensuing famine.
 
On the other end of the thermometer, warmer temperatures also can cause extensive crop loss. This critical correlation between changing weather and plants' ability to fend off diseases is featured in the current issue of Nature Communications.
 
In this scenario, Bethany Huot, MSU cell and molecular biology graduate program alumna and the study's lead author, wanted to find out if plants' defense system was compromised or was pathogens' virulence enhanced?
 
The answer: It's both.
 
"Just like people, plants are more likely to get sick when they are growing in stressful environments," said Huot, who published the paper with Sheng Yang He, University Distinguished Professor of plant biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and Beronda Montgomery, MSU Foundation Professor. "While individual stresses are damaging to plants, they can have catastrophic effects when combined."
 
The researchers showed on the genetic level how high temperature weakens plant defenses while, separately, strengthening bacterial attacks.
 
When people get a fever, they take a form of salicylic acid, or SA, commonly known as aspirin. Plants don't have to go to a medicine cabinet because they're able to make their own SA. At 73 degrees Fahrenheit, plants can produce plenty of SA to fight off a pathogenic infection. However, when the heat rose above 86 degrees, no SA was produced, leaving plants vulnerable.
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