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The microbial molecule that turns plants into 'zombies'

A newly discovered manipulation mechanism used by parasitic bacteria to slow down plant aging may offer new ways to protect disease-threatened food crops. Parasites manipulate the organisms they live off to suit their needs, sometimes in drastic ways. When under the spell of a parasite, some plants undergo such extensive changes that they are described as "zombies." They stop reproducing and serve only as a habitat and host for the parasitic pathogens. Until now, there's been little understanding of how this happens on a molecular and mechanistic level.

Research from the Hogenhout group at the John Innes Centre and collaborators published in Cell, has identified a manipulation molecule produced by Phytoplasma bacteria to hijack plant development. This protein causes key growth regulators to be broken down when inside a plant, triggering abnormal growth.

Phytoplasma bacteria belong to a group of microbes that are notorious for their ability to reprogram the development of their host plants. This group of bacteria is often responsible for the 'witches' brooms' seen in trees, where an excessive number of branches grow close together. These bushy outgrowths are the result of the plant being stuck in a vegetative "zombie" state, unable to reproduce, and therefore progress to a 'forever young' status.

Phytoplasma bacteria can also cause devastating crop diseases, such as Aster Yellows which causes significant yield losses in both grain and leaf crops like lettuce, carrots, and cereals. Professor Saskia Hogenhout, corresponding author of the study, said: "Phytoplasmas are a spectacular example of how the reach of genes can extend beyond the organisms to impact surrounding environments.

"Our findings cast new light on a molecular mechanism behind this extended phenotype in a way that could help solve a major problem for food production. We highlight a promising strategy for engineering plants to achieve a level of durable resistance of crops to phytoplasmas."

This finding offers the possibility of tweaking just these two amino acids in crops, for example, using gene-editing technologies, to provide durable resilience to phytoplasmas and the effects of SAP05.

Read the complete research at

Weijie Huang, Allyson M. MacLean, Akiko Sugio, Abbas Maqbool, Marco Busscher, Shu-Ting Cho, Sophien Kamoun, Chih-Horng Kuo, Richard G.H. Immink, Saskia A. Hogenhout. Parasitic modulation of host development by ubiquitin-independent protein degradation. Cell, 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2021.08.029



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