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Institute for Integrative Genome Biology



IIGB Researchers Target Irish Famine Pathogen


In the Feb. 3 issue of Nature Genetics, a team of IIGB researchers led by Wenbo Ma focused on Phytophthora, the pathogen that triggered the Irish Famine of the 19th century, and deciphered how it succeeded in crippling the potato plant’s immune system.

When a pathogen attacks a plant, infection usually follows after the plant’s immune system is compromised. The genus Phytophthora contains many notorious pathogens of crops. Phytophthora pathogens cause worldwide losses of more than $6 billion each year on potato (Phytophthora infestans) and about $2 billion each year on soybean (Phytophthora sojae).

The researchers focused their attention on a class of essential virulence proteins produced by a broad range of pathogens, including Phytophthora, called “effectors.” The effectors are delivered to, and function only in, the cells of the host plants the pathogens attack. The researchers found that Phytophthora effectors blocked the RNA silencing pathways in their host plants (such as potato, tomato, and soybean), resulting first in a suppression of host immunity and thereafter in an increase in the plants’ susceptibility to disease.

Ma was joined in the study by IIGB's Yongli Qiao, Lin Liu, Cristina Flores, James Wong, Jinxia Shi, Xianbing Wang, Xigang Liu, Qijun Xiang, Shushu Jiang, Howard S. Judelson and Xuemei Chen; Fuchun Zhang at Xinjiang University, China; and Qin Xiong and Yuanchao Wang at Nanjing Agricultural University, China.

The research was supported by a National Science Foundation grant to Ma and grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to Judelson and Chen.

In 2011, UCR received a $9 million USDA grant to research late blight, caused by Phytophthora infestans, that mainly attacks potatoes and tomatoes. Last year, UCR released avocado rootstocks that can help control Phytophthora root rot, a disease that has eliminated commercial avocado production in many areas of the world.

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