Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have discovered how parasites can manipulate plants into slowing down their ageing process. It is hoped understanding this process may help to prevent the loss of crops threatened by disease.
Parasites attaching to plants can often lead to them failing to grow and reproduce. This means they serve almost exclusively as a host for the parasites in question, often being described as “zombies”. The mechanism from the parasitic pathogens doing this has been a mystery for scientists for a long time until a paper recently published in Cell, expressed their findings.
The paper, published by the Hogenhout group from the John Innes Centre, focuses on the Phytoplasma bacteria, a parasitic bacteria containing a protein capable of sabotaging healthy plant development. The protein, SAP05, works by manipulating the part of the plant known as the proteasome. The proteasome is important to plant growth as it breaks down proteins no longer of use for the plant, allowing the rest of the plant to flourish. SAP05 interrupts this process by ordering the proteasome to break down healthy proteins regulating the growth and development of the plant. The phytoplasma bacteria then works to take over its host, stopping the ageing process to encourage new shoots forming which can ruin the overall development of the plant in favour of the parasite. This type of growth can be seen in branches displaying the “witches broom” disease.
Researchers at the John Innes Centre identified two amino acids in the proteasome impacted by the bacteria. By genetically modifying these parts, the plants in question were no longer affected by the bacteria allowing healthy growth to occur. It’s hoped in the future, this discovery can lead to higher crop yields and better food security by eliminating the impact of the zombifying pathogen.