Structure of “gliding bird” plant defense protein could lead to better crops

Researchers used two imaging and crystallography techniques to uncover the structure of a key plant defense protein called NPR1, which resembles “a gliding bird.”

Biologist Xinnian Dong says her “best Christmas gift ever” arrived in the form of a phone call. The call was from her longtime friend and collaborator at Duke University, Pei Zhou, who rang with long-awaited news: they had finally solved the structure of the key plant defense protein NPR1.

Dong, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, discovered NPR1 ­twenty-five years ago. The protein, with a name inspired by Dong’s love of National Public Radio (NPR), plays an important role in protecting flowering plants against a broad spectrum of pathogens. Today, NPR1 is widely recognized as a master regulator that controls more than 2,000 genes involved in plant immunity.

Despite its significant role in plant defense, NPR1’s structure has remained elusive ­– much to the dismay of researchers in the field. Without detailed structure data, scientists have struggled to understand how the protein governs plant protection, Zhou says. “What’s really crucial and missing is an explanation of how NPR1 works on a molecular level.”

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