Crops and other plants are often under attack from bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. When a plant senses a microbial invasion, it makes radical changes in the chemical soup of proteins – the workhorse molecules of life – inside its cells.
In recent years, Dong and her team have been piecing together just how they do it. In a new study published in the journal Cell, Dong and first author Jinlong Wang reveal the key components in plant cells that reprogram their protein-making machinery to fight disease.
Each year, around 15% of crop yield is lost to bacterial and fungal diseases, costing the global economy some $220 billion. Plants rely on their immune system to help them fight back, Dong said.
Unlike animals, plants don’t have specialized immune cells that can travel through the bloodstream to the site of infection; every cell in the plant has to be able to stand and fight to defend itself, quickly shifting into battle mode.
In a 2017 study, Dong and her team found that when a plant is infected, certain mRNA molecules are translated into proteins faster than others. What these mRNA molecules have in common, the researchers discovered is a region at the front end of the RNA strand with recurring letters in its genetic code, where the nucleotide bases adenine and guanine repeat themselves over and over again.
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Wang J, Zhang X, Greene GH, Xu G, Dong X. PABP/purine-rich motif as an initiation module for cap-independent translation in pattern-triggered immunity. Cell. 2022;185(17):3186-3200.e17. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2022.06.037