Plants transfer disease immunity to their offspring

27 March 2019

Researchers have identified locations in plants’ chromosomes that can transfer immunity to their offspring. This research could help in understanding the role of epigenetics in disease resistance.
Cassie Sims

Arabidopsis plants used in the study looking at inheritance of immunity in plants. Image: La Trobe University

Disease in crops is one of the biggest causes of yield losses. Understanding how plants defend themselves and how this immunity is transferred between generations can help to develop management strategies for farmers to better control pathogens.

Scientists, from a global research team, looked at locations or ‘loci’ within a plant’s DNA that had disease resistance against downy mildew, a common plant disease. The resistance had no negative effects on growth or abiotic stress resistance.

When plants are attacked repeatedly by a pathogen, they develop a ‘memory’ of the encounter, which allows them to fight more efficiently when attacked again. This ‘memory’ can be passed to the next generation in seeds via an epigenetic process called DNA methylation.

‘It is an epigenetic phenomenon - meaning there is no change in the DNA sequence,’ said Dr Jain, research fellow from La Trobe University, Australia. ‘Not only could this significant discovery lead to new ways of preventing disease in important crops, but it could also help reduce our reliance on pesticides.’

Future work will investigate how epigenetics relate to disease resistance, and how this can be manipulated to help farmers.

‘We now hope to use this study to carry out further research to understand how these epigenetic loci control so many different defence genes,’ said Professor Jurriaan Ton from the University of Sheffield’s Plant Production and Protection Centre, UK.

‘We are also keen to participate in more translational studies, to find out whether epigenetics can be used to prime disease resistance in crops that are vital to food supplies around the world.’

DOI: 10.7554/eLife.40655.001

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