In evolutionary arms race, a bacterium is found that outwits tomato plant's defenses

Jul 18, 2007
In evolutionary arms race, a bacterium is found that outwits tomato plant's defenses
Tracy Rosebrock, a graduate student in plant pathology and lead author of a paper appearing in Nature, stands among wild varieties of tomato plants at the Boyce Thompson Intstitute on campus. Photo: Robert Barker

An arms race is under way in the plant world. It is an evolutionary battle in which plants are trying to beef up their defenses against the innovative strategies of pathogens. The latest example of this war is a bacterium (Pseudomonas syringae) that infects tomatoes by injecting a special protein into the plant's cells and undermines the plant's defense system.

"Plant breeders often find that five or six years after their release, resistant plant varieties become susceptible because pathogens can evolve very quickly to overcome plant defenses," said Gregory Martin, Cornell professor of plant pathology, a scientist at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (BTI) on the Cornell campus and the senior author of the research paper, published in the July 19 issue of the journal Nature. "However, every now and then, breeders develop a plant variety that stays resistant for 20 years or more."

Understanding why some varieties have more durable disease resistance is important to the development of more sustainable agricultural practices, he said.

The study by Cornell and BTI scientists describes how a single bacterial protein, AvrPtoB, which is injected by P. syringae into plant cells through a kind of molecular syringe, can overcome the plant's resistance. Normally, the plant's defense system looks out for such pathogens and, if detected, mounts an immune response to stave off disease. As part of this surveillance system, tomatoes carry a protein in their cells called Fen that helps detect P. syringae and trigger an immune response.

But some strains of P. syringae have evolved the AvrPtoB protein that mimics a tomato enzyme known as an E3 ubiquitin ligase, which tags proteins to be destroyed. Once injected, AvrPtoB binds the Fen protein, and the plant's own system eliminates it, allowing the bacteria to avoid detection and cause disease.

"This paper explains how a pathogen can evolve to escape detection," said lead author Tracy Rosebrock, a graduate student in Cornell's Department of Plant Pathology and BTI. "The bacterium has one specific protein that it uses to turn off the plant's immunity."

The researchers found that the Fen gene is present in both cultivated tomatoes and many wild tomato species, leading them to believe that the gene is likely ancient in origin and that many members of the tomato family have used it to resist P. syringae infections over the years. Since the Fen protein still detects AvrPtoB-like proteins from some strains of P. syringae, prompting an effective immune response, the researchers believe new P. syringae strains have only recently evolved a version of AvrPtoB that includes an E3 ubiquitin ligase enzyme that interferes with the plant's surveillance.

"This paper provides molecular data that supports the evolutionary 'arms race' theory" that as pathogens develop new ways to spread and attack organisms, the organisms in turn create novel defenses, each in a continuous battle to outdo the other, said Rosebrock.

Source: Cornell University

Explore further: Danish museum discovers unique gift from Charles Darwin

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Ants protect acacia plants against pathogens

Jan 15, 2014

The biological term "symbiosis" refers to what economists and politicians usually call a win-win situation: a relationship between two partners which is beneficial to both. The mutualistic association between ...

Uncovering the tricks of nature's ice-seeding bacteria

Oct 23, 2013

Like the Marvel Comics superhero Iceman, some bacteria have harnessed frozen water as a weapon. Species such as Pseudomonas syringae have special proteins embedded in their outer membranes that help ice crystals form, and th ...

Small weed helps unravel complex plant defence system 

Oct 12, 2012

(Phys.org)—Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress as it is commonly known, made history back in 2000 by becoming the first plant to have its entire genetic code read by scientists, contributing to what i ...

Recommended for you

Team defines new biodiversity metric

10 hours ago

To understand how the repeated climatic shifts over the last 120,000 years may have influenced today's patterns of genetic diversity, a team of researchers led by City College of New York biologist Dr. Ana ...

Danish museum discovers unique gift from Charles Darwin

14 hours ago

The Natural History Museum of Denmark recently discovered a unique gift from one of the greatest-ever scientists. In 1854, Charles Darwin – father of the theory of evolution – sent a gift to his Danish ...

User comments : 0