Receptor found by UC Berkeley researchers helps plants fight disease

Photo of a wheat field
Meriç Tuna/Creative Commons
UC Berkeley scientists have discovered the functionalities and structural components of ROQ1 resistosome, a plant immune receptor. Photo by Meriç Tuna under CC0 1.0 .

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While humans continue to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, campus scientists have discovered a way for plants to fight off agricultural pandemics, according to a recently published study.

Printed Friday in Science Magazine, the study outlines how a team of researchers discovered the functionalities and structural components of a plant immune receptor called the ROQ1 resistosome, which can recognize and effectively attack invasive pathogens. According to a press release by campus Innovative Genomics Institute, these findings will play an important role in prohibiting disease spread across many plant species and crops.

“Surprisingly, the mechanism of binding to the pathogen is similar to how antibodies, which plants lack, recognize an antigen,” said Raoul Martin, a UC Berkeley biophysics graduate student who worked on the study, in an email.

According to Martin, the study was conducted as a joint effort between the campus labs of molecular and cell biology professor Eva Nogales and plant and microbial biology professor Brian Staskawicz.

Following the identification of a plant immune receptor in tobacco by the Staskawicz lab, Nogales’ lab was brought in to purify and visualize the receptor’s protein structure, Staskawicz said. Using cryogenic electron microscopy, the lab was then able to understand the receptor’s functions better.

“Now that we know the sites and the ways in which the immune receptor is recognizing the pathogen, we can begin to modify it in order to make it recognize different pathogens and make plants resistant to disease they aren’t normally resistant to,” Staskawicz said in an email.

Targeted immunity is an intriguing topic to researchers as disease outbreaks and pandemics threaten many crops, according to Martin. By adjusting the immune receptors of a plant, the plant would recognize and fight pathogens much more quickly than through traditional breeding methods.

Martin noted that foods such as bananas, chocolate and coffee currently threatened by disease would be better protected through targeted immunity. This immunity would also benefit the workers who rely on these crops for their livelihoods.

“Understanding the basic principles that underlie biological processes can give rise to technologies that then can have amazing and unexpected applications,” Nogales said. “That basic knowledge is a requirement in order to lead to more translational work.”

This knowledge of the receptor could allow it to be plugged into other plants via CRISPR genome engineering in order to create targeted immunity, according to Nogales.

Nogales added that the study has resulted in a lot of visual and mechanistic understanding of the receptor on a cellular level and emphasized the importance of collaborative research.

“When people with different expertise come together, they can do things that go beyond what either of them can do,” Nogales said. “I think UC Berkeley is particularly excellent at collaborative work.”

Katia Pokotylo contributed to this report.

Contact Claire Daly at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @DalyClaire13.